As I’m sure most of you have heard, Antonin Scalia, Justice to the United States Supreme Court and the most conservative individual on the Court, passed away this Valentine’s Day weekend. FOX reported that his death came from natural causes, while The New York Times held back any declaration of the same. Scalia was known for his creative, eloquent, often hyperbolic Opinions and Dissents; most recently, declaring the Court’s decision to uphold a key component to the Affordable Care Act’s nationwide coverage an act of “jiggery-pokery.” Scalia was 79.
His method of governing was rooted in a self-devised form of interpreting the Constitution he called Originalism. In it, he believed (as with most conservatives) the People and their Institution should govern solely on the original intent of the Founders. If it wasn’t in the Constitution, the Government shouldn’t do it was his mentality. Scalia believed that in order to most correctly interpret the founding document, one must place themselves in the mind of the Founders. Obviously, being over 200 years removed from its ratification, interpreting in such a way would be a feat. He would contend that this was to the benefit of the country, rather than simply a handicap. His critics often berated that to think someone in the 21st Century could truly place themselves in the mindset of a late 18th Century Founder is arrogant at best and destructive to democracy at worst. Yet, even Scalia conceded that Originalism cannot be the sole method of interpretation; he believed it required an opposing and, sometimes radical, new approach. That approach has often been Justice Brennan’s contemporary ratification; the idea that the Constitution lives and breathes with the times. That the text of the Constitution moves closely with the progress of a changing and growing society. Brennan’s argument is very much alive in today’s society and ever more so in the minds of the youth, whose progressive ideologies have shaped discussions of race, law enforcement, climate change, privacy, and capitalism. Originalism, however, died this weekend.
Make no mistake, Barack Obama, in the final year of his presidency, will do everything in his power to appoint a new Justice to the Court. Should he succeed, the new member will likely be a moderate at least and a liberal at most. The new member would be the third appointee by President Obama, making him the first president since Ronald Reagan to achieve three. It’s often said that the last seven years have been the Obama Era, but that notion is short sighted. The Obama Era will begin with the confirmation of his (presumably) final Supreme Court appointment. The appointment will have a tremendous impact on the future of the country. This will be the first Court in recent history to be dominated by liberal Justices, a third of whom will be directly linked to the work of Obama.
Liberals are, of course, salivating at the possibilities; at first, I was, too. After years of supporting and defending President Obama’s record, tonight I saw the possibility of his work continuing into the next 40 years. Issues of abortion, marriage equality, climate change, education, campaign finance, and wealth inequality could be addressed in a new, more progressive manner. I’ll admit, I’m excited to see what this new Court will hand down- specifically on the matters of climate change and wealth distribution. Finally, I thought, we might see real progress in the work to combat global warming.
But I soon realized exactly what Scalia’s death symbolized. In a time where society is ever more progressive by the passing day, our laws have yet to catch up. But part of the new problem before us is that is how it’s supposed to be. Our laws cannot withstand time when they are changing in step with society. It’s only when society, as a whole, agrees upon a specific issue that law can and should reflect it. Take Roe v. Wade, the decision legalizing abortion across the country. We recently passed the fortieth anniversary of that decision. It was radical, and one that is still highly contested across the country. Are we a pro-life nation? Or are we pro-choice? By law, we’re pro-choice. But does that reflect the wishes of our entire society, or simply a very small majority? I venture to believe the latter. The Court’s sweeping decision in Roe had not reflected the wishes of a strong majority of the nation, which is why abortion remains (and will remain) one of if not the most controversial topics in politics. I’ve personally watched relationships end over this single issue.
But the Court has also ushered in substantial change, most notably the Civil Rights Movement. Had the Court not handed down the decision in Brown v. Board of Education to desegregate schools across the country and assimilate blacks in to the rest of society, where we would be? Likely, set back decades from where we are today.
What’s important to realize about Scalia’s work is, for however dated and sometimes asinine his beliefs were, he was one of the last men anchoring us to the Constitution. For every decision that was passed down during his tenure, Scalia was the most prominent voice screaming, “We cannot forget what the Founders intended.” Despite society and the politics of late (read: the presidency’s of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) clamoring that we must change and adapt, Scalia was the voice of, “Not all the time.” He may not have halted the Liberal agenda in ways he and many others would have liked, but he constantly reminded us of where we came from and why we were doing what we were doing and how we were doing it.
Conservatives across the country will mourn this loss for some time to come, but that’s a given. I think it’s more important that liberals mourn alongside them. For it was Scalia who halted progress in the name of principle. It was Scalia who showed us the value of remaining true to our heritage; a heritage of great principle, understanding the precedence of every action and reaction we made as a single, sovereign voice. His hyperbolic, hyperventilating nature reminded us of the possibilities of our actions. With his last-century Italian stubbornness, Antonin Scalia reminded us where we came from. And now, that voice is forever silent.
I think, now more than ever, it’s important for our nation to reflect on the end of the Conservative Movement, not because it’s an election year, but because it’s a new beginning for the Liberal Movement. An uncharted and foggy future lies ahead with this new Court, and soon, we may no longer see the lighthouse we called home that guided our every action.
Update: A previous version of this post said Roe v. Wade was fifty years old, rather than forty.