Montana State University

Scalia renders opinions about the original Constitution and moral decisions at MSU lecture

July 28, 2010 -- Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the longest serving justice of the country's highest court, discussed the vitality of the original Constitution as well as a variety of other subjects during a lecture Wednesday, July 28, at Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.   High-Res Available

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is not happy with the intrusion of politics into the selection process of justices for the Supreme Court, nor does he feel that he and his fellow jurists are any "more qualified to decide cases involving the leading moral questions of the day than medical doctors, engineers or even Joe Six-Pack."

Scalia, who is the longest serving justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, told a capacity crowd of 220 Wednesday night at the Hager Auditorium at Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies that his appointment by Ronald Reagan to the high court in 1986 was approved by the Senate by a vote of 98-0. "Yet, if I were to be confirmed today I might get 60 votes."

"What has occurred is betrayed even by the terminology by which the confirmation debates are conducted," Scalia said during his speech, "Mullahs of the West: Judges as Moral Arbiters." "The Senate is looking for moderate judges. What in the world is a moderate interpretation of a constitutional text? Half-way between what it says and what we would like it to say?"

The original interpretation of the U.S. Constitution was at the heart of Scalia's remarks during his first visit to MSU. He is known as the high court's most ardent "originalist," which means he maintains that the original language of the Constitution should prevail and endure. This opposes those who argue that the Constitution is a living, evolving document.

As he was introduced, Scalia said that he believes that the "dividing line in this county isn't between liberals and conservatives; the bigger question is the Constitution and those who believe it does not change and those who think it evolves."

He also argues that judges, including his fellow jurists who are considered the top legal minds in the country, have no place deciding the tough moral issues of the day, including abortion, right to die and same sex marriage. That is best left to the people of a society, he said.

"Surely it is obvious that nothing I learned in my law courses at Harvard Law School, none of the experience I acquired practicing law, qualifies me to decide whether there is a fundamental right to abortion or to assisted suicide," Scalia said.

"What I am questioning is the propriety, indeed, the sanity of letting value-laden decisions such as these be made for the entire society."

Scalia told the audience that he thinks the high court isn't being sufficiently respected during the confirmation process, such as the one that Elena Kagan is currently undergoing in the U.S. Senate. Likewise, when asked what he thought of the "dressing down of the Supreme Court" by President Barack Obama during the State of the Union address when Obama criticized the court's ruling allowing campaign contributions by corporations, Scalia said he does not want the Supreme Court's dignity subjected to that "silly occasion."

That comment drew applause, as did Scalia's frequent use of humor.

For example, when one person asked during the short question and answer period what Scalia thought of a federal judge's ruling earlier in the day that struck down parts of the controversial tough immigration law in Arizona, Scalia, who is known to be one of the wittiest of the Supreme Court justices, stared at the questioner and then said, "And do you WANT me to be recused?"

Scalia also answered questions about his favorite poker game (Choose' Em, which calls for as much reason as chance) and the dictionary on his desk (a 1846 edition of a Noah Webster dictionary). But his greatest enthusiasm came for one of his favorite diversions.

"I came (here) mostly because I like to fish," Scalia told the audience. "But also I am also pleased to be at this fine university."

Tracy Ellig (406) 994-5607, tellig@montana.edu