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COLUMN: The Revolutionary Legal Legacy of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

February 22, 2016
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

“I don't worry about my legacy,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once said. “Just do your job right, and who cares?” Last week, with the sudden passing of Justice Scalia at the age of 79, our country lost a jurist and legal scholar of the highest order. Justice Scalia may not have worried about how history would remember him, but he leaves a legacy as an ardent defender of the Constitution, individual rights, and the principle of limited government.

Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, Justice Scalia’s 30 years of service on the nation’s highest court was one of the longest terms of any justice. Justice Scalia was unique at the time of his appointment as an “originalist,” meaning that he insisted that historical context and the meaning of the words chosen by the Constitution’s drafters were critical to its interpretation, and it was not a living, breathing document the meaning of which changed over time. In an era of expanding federal reach and activist judges who legislate from the bench, Justice Scalia’s method of interpreting the original intent of the drafters of the Constitution infused his opinions with deference to the rule of law. His focus on original intent demonstrated a great respect for the institutional foundations of America’s experiment of self-government.

Justice Scalia firmly believed that the proper way of amending the Constitution is through the amendment process, not reinterpreting the text. He understood that the job of rewriting the law is the role of the people’s elected representatives in Congress, not nine unelected members of the Supreme Court. Otherwise, the U.S. would be under the rule of men, not the law.

Justice Scalia was a staunch defender of constitutional rights. His majority opinion in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller struck down the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns and upheld the individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment. In his words, the Second Amendment "surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home."

The passing of Justice Scalia leaves an immediate question as to the makeup of the Supreme Court. While the Senate, not the House of Representatives, has a role in confirming judicial nominees, it is critical that the American people have the opportunity to weigh in on the selection of a new president before the confirmation of Scalia’s replacement on the Court. 

Scalia’s powerful intellect and sharp wit made him a formidable force and gained him respect, even from many who disagreed with him. Few Americans may know that his strongly held beliefs did not translate into personal conflict with those who believed otherwise: One of his closest personal friends was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Our constitutional republic owes Justice Scalia a debt of thanks for holding the line on the rule of law, and we honor the memory of a great man.