Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died of natural causes Saturday, Feb. 13 in Shafter, Texas, leaving behind a strong legacy on the court and influence on the understanding of the Constitution. Amid nationwide memorials and speculation over his replacement, Professor of Political Science Lane Sunderland remembers Scalia not only as a giant on the bench, but also as a good friend.
“It was hard news. Hard news for me. He was a friend, and also had what I regarded as a very sound jurisprudence that often is misunderstood,” Sunderland said.
Antonin Scalia began his 30-year tenure on the Supreme Court Sept. 17, 1986, after a Senate confirmation vote of 98-0. That evening, Sunderland met and congratulated him during a Constitution Day dinner at the Willard Hotel. During his time working in D.C., first as the Director of Education of the Bicentennial of the Constitution and then as a Supreme Court Fellow under Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Sunderland developed his friendship with Scalia, which remained strong to the day he passed.
“Scalia was larger than life, and he had a wonderfully cordial personality,” Sunderland said. “He liked to be very active, to be involved in a large number of things, and if I was invited to a cocktail party at the British Embassy in Washington, I was pretty sure he’d be there too, and so we had a chance to get to know each other that way.”
Throughout the years of their friendship, Sunderland remembers having lunches with Scalia in D.C. Always at one of his favorite Italian restaurants, Scalia would goad Sunderland into ordering something different and new, which showed his persuasive and charming character; he would also always order an expensive bottle of wine, which Sunderland would try and Scalia would finish, and the pair would just talk and enjoy each other’s company.
“He doesn’t seem as cordial when you hear him on the bench as he is in personal relationships, but he could charm anyone in terms of a personal relationship,” Sunderland said.
Even after Sunderland left D.C. to teach at Knox, the two continued to have lunch together after their annual Supreme Court Fellow meetings.
The last time the pair met was when Scalia spoke last year at the Union League Club of Chicago on Feb. 14, 2014. The event, where Scalia spoke on the importance of civic education, took place in one of the club’s banquet rooms to accommodate the big audience. Sunderland remembers sitting with his wife in “the least enviable table in the room,” and going up to Scalia to say hello. His wife, Jacklyn, stayed behind at their table.
“Well, where’s Jacklyn? I want to see her too,” Sunderland remembers Scalia saying.
“So, he followed me around through the room,” Sunderland said. “On the way, commented ‘Oh, they put you in the corner, did they?’ But, he wanted to weave his way through all these tables so he could talk to my wife and give her a hug. That was the type of man he was on a personal level.”
On Oct. 24, 1996, Scalia traveled to Knox to deliver the Robison Lecture “On Interpreting the Constitution” at the T. Fleming Fieldhouse. The speech garnered an audience of over 1,000 people.
“The city of Galesburg community and the campus community received him warmly. There was a big turnout,” Sunderland remembered.
Prior to that speech, Scalia also spent the day guest lecturing for American National Government and Constitutional Law, both classes taught by Sunderland, and had lunch with students and faculty. At the end of the day, he had dinner at the Sunderland home.
Scalia is remembered most by his jurisprudence — meaning his philosophy of law and legal principles — which was heavy on originalism and textualism. When deciding on court cases, this means that he relied heavily on the original intent of the Constitution, as well as the straight text of statutes, rather than what was spoken at the floor of Congress. The foil to this would be pragmatism and the idea of a “Living Constitution,” which is held strongly by Justices Breyer and Ginsberg.
Scalia’s jurisprudence and decisions, considered conservative by the general public, drew great opposition and criticism from more liberal communities such as Knox.
“There were a few students who demonstrated and exercised their first amendment right [during Scalia’s time at Knox], and let me just say, that wasn’t the first demonstration Scalia has seen,” Sunderland said
Hiba Ahmed ‘15, currently studying law at the Washington College of Law in D.C., said in an email that she doesn’t agree with Scalia much, but remembers him as a brilliant judge. His focus on the text of statutes and the Constitution, especially in cases concerning societal issues, resulted in important dissents that allowed the Supreme Court to appropriately do its job.
“My wish would be that anyone who criticizes him do that with an understanding of the richness of his jurisprudence, not just a knee-jerk jurisprudence,” he said.
Ahmed notes that on the evening of Scalia’s passing, she met many prominent legal figures during an Inaugural Gala for her school’s new campus. All of them were greatly saddened by the news, and a moment of silence was taken during the welcoming remarks.
Shortly after his passing, Ahmed also remarked on how the conversation about Scalia quickly turned into a discussion about his replacement and the contention surrounding the appointment process. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell notably stated that he would block any Supreme Court nominee until after the 2016 election.
“I think it was unwise of the Senate majority leader to say that they wouldn’t confirm anyone who came across the transom, and actually, I think a lot of this talk has been premature,” Sunderland states. “I don’t like to see talk about the Senate not confirming anyone who Obama would appoint. I think that’s unfair to any of the individuals involved, and unfair to the President.”
Ironically, McConnell’s statements challenge the powers bequeathed to the President by the Constitution, something that Scalia upheld to the highest degree.
No matter who’s appointed and confirmed, the decision comes with the knowledge that they’ll be following Scalia’s impressive and influential time in office, as well as his big personality outside of the court.
“We grew to be friends on a number of different fronts, and I very much enjoyed that opportunity, because he’s extremely busy, and he has a lot of friends,” Sunderland says. “I felt it was a privilege.”