Opinion Columns & Blogs

Charlie Harper: Scalia brought his 'A' game

Justice Antonin Scalia, who died Saturday, had been on the Supreme Court since 1986.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who died Saturday, had been on the Supreme Court since 1986. The Associated Press

Justice Antonin Scalia died Saturday. The immediate political reaction was as expected as it was unseemly. Expected because one of the court's most conservative members has left a vacancy during a heated election to replace our country's most progressive President. Expected because the candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders show that our country is not only as divided as ever among ideological lines, but also among those from both parties currently governing against those being governed.

Upon the news of his death much social media immediately filled with partisan punches and counterpunches. There was no shortage of those who chose to judge Scalia the man based solely on his judicial opinions as compared to their own world view.

Scalia the man was much more than that. He was a husband, father of nine, and grandfather of three dozen. Perhaps the way Scalia the man - and the judge/political figure - should be judged is by his friends. He had many, and for someone often viewed as a right-wing ideologue, his choices of friends would likely surprise many.

Fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn't share many of Justice Scalia's opinions on the court. Professionally the two could be considered adversaries. Yet personally, the two were very close friends. Her statement upon his death revealed both personal closeness and professional respect:

Toward the end of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: "We are different, we are one," different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve. From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots -- the "applesauce" and "argle bargle" -- and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. The press referred to his "energetic fervor," "astringent intellect," "peppery prose," "acumen," and "affability," all apt descriptions. He was eminently quotable, his pungent opinions so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader's grasp.

Justice Scalia once described as the peak of his days on the bench an evening at the Opera Ball when he joined two Washington National Opera tenors at the piano for a medley of songs. He called it the famous Three Tenors performance. He was, indeed, a magnificent performer. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.

What strikes me in her statement isn't the note of friendship, but the direct admission that Scalia made her work harder and her opinions better. Strength demands strength. Opposite forces can make each other stronger -- and in the process, the process and outcome become stronger.

Scalia held strong opinions. He also believed that the country was best served when the opposition not only held equally rigorous opinions, but also brought an equally strong rigor of intellect to the debate. The Supreme Court is our republic's highest platform for a battle of ideas. He wanted to ensure that the best ideas were presented from each side, from the best.

How so? President Obama's adviser David Axelrod wrote for CNN over the weekend that Scalia asked him directly during a White House Correspondents' Dinner for President Obama to appoint his friend Elana Kagan to the highest court.

Why would one of the court's most conservative members plug a progressive? According to Axelrod, "If Scalia could not have a philosophical ally in the next court appointee, he had hoped, at least, for one with the heft to give him a good, honest fight."

There's a lesson here for modern-day politics. Too many run from actual political battles and from fighting the good, honest fight. We instead choose to paint our ideological adversaries as enemies. We anoint ourselves with moral superiority and thus justify any means necessary to win against our enemies. And our enemies become anyone who has the temerity to disagree with us.

Champions know that in order to be the best they have to beat the best. Scalia brought the best with him.

While there will never be another Justice Scalia, the court needs more men and women like him. Perhaps more importantly, American politics needs more who share his self-confidence in his opinions that they will openly accept those that differ.

Charlie Harper, executive director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank, is also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to state & local politics of Georgia.