In the wake of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death on February 13, 2016, President Obama solemnly observed, “He will no doubt be remembered as one of the most consequential judges and thinkers to serve on the Supreme Court. Justice Scalia dedicated his life to the cornerstone of our democracy: the rule of law.”
Although the two were not properly understood as political enemies, it is nonetheless entertaining to note that some of Scalia’s most notable and memorable contributions to political discussion included vehement criticisms of Obamacare. These criticisms included, but are certainly not limited to, Scalia’s statement that, “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare,” and, in his dissenting opinion in the case of King v. Burwell, that the whole thing was “pure applesauce.”
Born on March 11, 1936, in Trenton, New Jersey, Antonin Scalia was the only child of Salvadore Eugene and Catherine Panaro Scalia. Scalia earned a bachelor’s degree in History from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in 1957, and graduated valedictorian and summa cum laude. Afterward, he attended Harvard Law School, and met his wife, Maureen McCarthy, during his final year there. Surely, the defining moment of Scalia’s political career occurred in 1986 when President Ronald Regan nominated Scalia to fill a vacancy in the high court. At the time of his death, Scalia was the longest serving Supreme Court Justice in the current court.
As is evident in his numerous dissenting opinions, and particularly in his 21-page dissent in response to the Supreme Court’s decision not to strike down the Affordable Care Act, Scalia was routinely known as one of the country’s most definitively conservative figures.
As Rob Crilly writes in The Telegraph, “[H]e was a frequent source of frustration for liberals,” particularly due to his dissent towards such poignant issues as marriage equality, abortion, affirmative action, and, of course, the Affordable Care Act.
At the same time, however, Scalia was more frequently identified under the banner of “originalism,” the political ideology maintaining that an appropriate understanding of the Constitution is rooted in the context of the time period in which it was written.
Rather than the Constitution being a “living” and changing document, in short, Scalia is quoted as stating that the Constitution is “dead, dead, dead.”
“We have now determined,” remarked Scalia in 2004, “that liberties exist under the federal Constitution — the right to abortion, the right to homosexual sodomy — which were so little rooted in the traditions of the American people that they were criminal for 200 years.”
However, at the same time that Scalia’s leanings towards originalism rendered him decidedly conservative, his fidelity to originalism occasionally led him in directions that were at odds with fundamental conservatism. For example, Scalia voted in 1989 to strike down a law making it a crime to burn an American flag. Humorously enough, this did not stop him from remarking, “I don’t like scruffy, bearded, sandal-wearing people who go around burning the United States flag.”
Scalia died of apparent natural causes while staying as a guest at the Cibolo Creek Ranch, a luxury resort south of Marfa, Texas. Scalia reportedly attended a private party the night of his death, and was discovered dead after he failed to appear at breakfast the following morning. A federal official indicated that foul play is not suspected to have been a factor in Scalia’s death, as Scalia reportedly suffered from regular heart trouble
and high blood pressure. Given that Scalia’s death marks the departure of a conservative Supreme Court Justice, it is hardly surprising that his death generated significant political drama no more than an hour after it was confirmed.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell emerged at the forefront of the resulting political complications when he suggested, only about an hour after Scalia’s death had been confirmed, that the Senate should not confirm a replacement for Scalia’s vacancy until after the 2016 Presidential Election takes place.
As McConnell states, “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”
Clearly, this statement on the part of McConnell, as well as similar statements issued by other conservative voices, evidently involves concern as to the possibility of Obama nominating a Democratic replacement for Scalia’s position.
The problem, of course, is that there is absolutely no precedent for a sitting president to abstain from performing high-court appointments at the request of any member of the legislative branch. Numerous interpreters therefore saw McConnell’s desire for the representation of American voters in the selection process as a case of blatant political maneuvering rather than a good-hearted appeal to democratic representation.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, referred to McConnell’s stunt as “outrageous,” stating, “[e]lections have consequences. The president has a responsibility to nominate a new justice and the Senate has a responsibility to vote.” Unsurprisingly, President Obama has already placed numerous calls to senators from both political parities with the intention of nominating a replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia.
Scalia’s death marks both the saddening passing of a governmental icon and, unsurprisingly, a point of further political drama across party lines. Given the current political climate, and as McConnell and a collection of other conservative voices indicate, it is expected that more political “applesauce” will emerge as Scalia’s replacement is sought out.
-Austin Wash ’16, Senior Politics/Opinions Editor