May 9, 2003

Justice Scalia speaks at Law School

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia entertained a packed house of University students at the Law School Tuesday, explaining his originalist view of the Constitution while telling humorous anecdotes and wisecracking with audience members.

Originalism is a philosophy that emphasizes a strict textual interpretation of the Constitution as a legal document, and consequently suggests that the founding intentions of the Constitution are completely static over time. Under this conception, judges must guide their decisions on matters that are explicitly referenced in the text of the Constitution, not what they feel is in the spirit of the law, Scalia explained.

Scalia opened his remarks by stating how his originalist view of constitutional law has fallen out of favor among judges and legislators in the last half-century.

"You could fire a grapefruit out of a cannon over the best law schools in the country and not hit an originalist," Scalia said. "And that includes Chicago."

At several points in the speech, Scalia expressed an extreme prejudice toward the phrase "living constitution," an idea that he feels has taken over mainstream thought on constitutional law. He argued that the court should not be flexible or adapt to the evolving trends in the culture, saying that this responsibility is the purpose of the legislature.

"It's become the view of the people on the street that if they were fed up with something, then let's make a law," Scalia said. "If you care passionately about something has become the only test to determine if something is constitutional. How passionately do you care?"

Scalia's talk was relatively short, lasting for only roughly half an hour plus a 15-minute question and answer session. His tone was engaging and at times quite informal. The speech was full of factual analysis of his ideas complimented with off-the-cuff stories about certain cases.

At one point while discussing the controversial flag burning case--on which Scalia decided to allow the action as a constitutional form of protest--the justice told a story about the morning after the court's decision when he encountered his wife at breakfast. His wife, Maureen Scalia, "a staunch conservative," according to Scalia, started humming "Stars and Stripes Forever" as she handed him the morning newspaper with the court's ruling on the front page.

"I don't need that," Justice Scalia said, referring to the pain of making a legal decision that does not accord to his political views.

"If I didn't have these shackles of originalism on my wrists I would have loved to send Mr. Johnson to jail," he said.

The speech was received well by audience members, who gave Scalia an enthusiastic standing ovation after the end of his remarks.

"I thought he was a really impressive, funny, convincing, and likable speaker," said Mike Tessel, a third-year in the College. "I think his argument really made me think about how dangerously powerful the court could become if it is allowed to interpret the Constitution to mean whatever they thought it to mean."

The question and answer session saw more joking from the Supreme Court justice, often responding to students with flippant comments that made the audience laugh.

To one question about originalism, Scalia responded, "I'm a textualist, an originalist, but I'm not a nut."

In another instance, Scalia answered a question in regard to the growing view that expanding our freedoms is always a positive occurrence in the government.

"People look at rights as if they were muscles--the more you exercise them, the better they get," Scalia quipped.

Unlike at the mock trial finals over which Scalia resided the previous day, there were no political protesters outside the law school, though security was still kept high for the justice's visit. Many doors were kept locked and bags were not allowed within the lecture hall.