Antonin Scalia Entertains at Lisner

NPR's Nina Totenberg with Justice Antonin Scalia at Lisner Tuesday night.
U.S. Supreme Court justice talks about life on the high court with a mix of humor and charm.
February 13, 2013

By Jay Conley

Well known for his sharp wit and outspoken opinion, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia displayed both before a large audience Tuesday night in GW’s Lisner Auditorium. In an event sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates and hosted by Nina Totenberg, National Public Radio’s legal affairs correspondent, Justice Scalia said it was pure coincidence that he agreed to talk about his time on the Supreme Court on the same night that President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union speech.

“I didn’t set this up tonight just to upstage the president,” said Justice Scalia, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1986 and is the court’s longest-serving member. He hasn’t attended the State of the Union since 1997, saying it’s mostly a political event to rally supporters that shouldn’t involve the court and has devolved over time into a “rather silly affair.”

Those types of remarks are classic Scalia, said Ms. Totenberg, who has covered the Supreme Court for more than 30 years. She described him as someone who’s never been hesitant to voice his opinion and not one to shy away from “venturing into the lion’s den of those who disagree with him.” To the delight of the Lisner audience, Ms. Totenberg led Justice Scalia through an oftentimes amusing conversation that touched on everything from the hat he wore to President Obama’s inauguration last month (a custom-made replica of the hat depicted in a portrait of English lawyer and statesman St. Thomas More) to his views on the Constitution as a living document, his memorable court opinions, how he taught Justice Elena Kagan to shoot fowl, and the importance of his wife’s role in raising his family of nine children and 33 grandchildren.

“I take care of the Constitution, she takes care of everything else,” he said of his wife, Maureen, drawing one of the biggest laughs of the evening.

Regarding the Constitution, Justice Scalia has long rejected interpretations of it as a living document that can be continually rewritten, or amended, to fit the needs of modern society.

“I sometimes call it dead to get a rise out of people. It’s enduring is what it is,” he said, describing himself as an originalist who sees the Constitution as a document that should be interpreted as it was initially adopted. “What it meant then, it means now.”

Justice Scalia said he stands by his actions on the court over the last quarter century. Two of the most recent notable court decisions include the 2010 Citizens United case, in which his vote with the majority of the court held that corporations had the same First Amendment rights to free speech as individuals, and his dissenting opinion last year on the court’s favorable ruling of the Affordable Care Act.

“I’m greatly disappointed when I can’t persuade a majority of my colleagues. But that’s life, that’s the system that we have,” he said.

In a reference to the proliferation of mass shootings that have occurred in America in recent months, Ms. Totenberg asked about the limitations of the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment and the potential for a case to be brought before the Supreme Court.

“There are doubtless limits,” Justice Scalia said. “But what they are, we shall see.”

Known for his colorful dissenting opinions, Justice Scalia said it is the reasoning behind the court’s decisions, not their outcome, that are at the core of interpreting the law and setting longstanding legal precedents.

“The outcome is here today, gone tomorrow. It affects one situation, one case. But the reasoning will affect hundreds of cases in lower courts. So if you get the reasoning wrong you get everything wrong, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I have never joined an opinion that I did not think was correct, not only in the outcome but in all essential parts of the reasoning.”

Ms. Totenberg noted that in recent years, Justice Scalia is widely credited with changing the pace of oral arguments by peppering lawyers with a range of questions, something that was rare among past courts.

“There weren’t many questions before, and I don’t think that’s a good thing,” he said. “Good [lawyers] appreciate what is called a lively bench.”

Justice Scalia also acknowledged that many of the cases that come before the court aren’t the type of landmark cases that people remember. “Sometimes you ask questions because it’s so incredibly dull,” he said. “You just try to liven things up a bit.”

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