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As Obama Names His SCOTUS Nominee — Let’s Remember What Scalia Said Matters

Allow me to play “Captain Obvious” for a moment: Being tapped to fill a vacant Supreme Court slot is a big deal. 

Even so, I was a tad surprised when D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland — Barack Obama’s newly revealed nominee to replace recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia — nearly broke down, twice, visibly overcome with emotion, while making his introductory statements Wednesday morning. Again, I get it: this would be a once-in-a-lifetime event for any self-respecting jurist. It undoubtedly was for Justice Scalia when president Ronald Reagan gave him the nod back in 1986. I’m not certain, however, in the wake of his mid-February departure, it defined the most important aspect of Scalia’s life.

A torrent of comments released following the eighty-year-old Constitutional giant’s unexpected death, has made evident it was common among those who loved and respected him to refer to him by his nickname “Nino”. Clearly, this habit was of more than  whimsical significance, reinforcing that, in fact, Scalia was very much more than a formidable legal mind. 

— In his tribute to Scalia, retired Justice John Paul Stevens remembered his “incomparable sense of humor” — a repeated theme among those who knew him: the gregarious smile, prankish wit, affection for story-telling; and laughter, so much laughter.  Scalia, a brilliant,  widely celebrated Harvard Law graduate? Of course — though that didn’t make him a dourly bookish, black-robed golem.

In National Review‘s March 16 memorial symposium, former Scalia clerk Kevin B. Huff laments, “I will miss that laugh.” 

— Further to that, undeniable was the judicial titan’s passion for spheres beyond legal decisions and rhetorical sparring. Court peer Stephen Breyer reflected, “Nino Scalia  … loved his family …  ideas, music, and the out of doors. He shared with us … his enthusiasms”. A big game hunter/fisherman, opera aficionado, lover of good food and good conversation — Scalia was all these and more; enjoying a rich and varied life — a true joie de vivre —  beyond service on the bench. 

— Relationships were pre-eminent to Antonin Scalia. Those mourning his passing make constant references to their “friendship” with this towering high-court intellect: “good friend”, “treasured friend”, “dear friend”. And these included many who staunchly occupied ideological territory at-swords-crossed with the fiercely “Originalist”, unflappably “Textualist” jurist. “Living Constitution” proponent and fellow justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for instance, named him a “best budd[y]”. Scalia “could find something redeeming and likable in just about everyone he met, regardless of politics,”  praises professor Hadley Arkes (National Review/NR) 

Famously the father of nine  — count ’em: nine! — children, the Italian-American jurist volubly cherished wife Maureen.  Edward Whelan, another erstwhile Scalia clerk, writes that he credited her with strengthening him in the face of what could have been dispiriting obstacles. Additionally, notes Whelan, “[W]henever anyone complimented him for [his children’s] achievements and virtues, he would say, ‘Maureen deserves all the credit.” (NR)

— Unapologetically, Scalia was a man who prized his Christian (Roman Catholic) faith. His son, Arlington, VA priest Father Paul Scalia, recalls his parents’ kneeling in the sand during a summer-vacation, beachfront celebration of the Mass. 

Obviously, that scene has stuck with me … [M]y dad possessed … the understanding that, although God has hidden things from the wise and learned, He has revealed them to the childlike (Matthew 11:25). [M]y dad was wise and learned … But in turning to the things of God, he knew he needed to become childlike. And kneel in the sand. 


That devout perspective — Scalia’s “Christian outlook” (Arkes) — pervaded his career. Four years ago, he exhorted a “standing-room-only crowd” of  conference attendees to “[h]ave the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world. … My point is not that reason and intellect need to be laid aside, ”  he continued.  “A faith without a rational basis should be laid aside as false.  … What is irrational is to reject a priori the possibility of miracles in general and the resurrection of Jesus Christ in particular.” 

In what turned out to be among his final, public addresses (January 2), the Justice declared to an assembly of Louisiana Catholic high-schoolers, “[O]ne of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor … [D]o not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that.” Deriding any notion that governmental “religious neutrality” means all tendrils of religion must be scrubbed from the public square, Scalia underscored,  

There is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. … [Y]ou can’t favor one denomination over another. But we can’t favor religion over non-religion? … Don’t cram it down the throats of an American people that has always honored God on the pretext that the Constitution requires it.

Nope, none of that separation-of-church-and-state mythology — all the judicial rage nowadays — for “Nino”.

— In his behavior toward others and impact on them, Justice Scalia was imitation-worthy. “He was an extraordinary individual … admired and treasured by his colleagues” (Justice John Roberts); and “shaped by an unyielding commitment … to the highest ethical and moral standards.” (Justice Anthony Kennedy).

Once more, Edward Whelan: “The boss was quiet about his faith in chambers,” but one time, sensing his co-worker was neglecting spiritual priorities, “he gave a gentle nudge by quoting the Gospel passage, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul.” Whelan concludes ” From Justice Scalia’s two loves [God and wife Maureen], I was inspired to deepen my embrace of the faith and to find my own Maureen.” 

Fellow Court-member Clarence Thomas’ words bring a lump to the throat:

Over the nearly quarter-of-a-century that we were colleagues, we grew to trust and love each other. … I am eternally grateful that my friend Antonin Scalia was a member of the Court … I certainly know I am better for having worked with this good man.


“Nino” Scalia’s experience provides a useful and cautionary example for Judge Garland (or whoever succeeds him). The ages are littered with wretched players who were professionally “successful” – perhaps even uniquely, epochally so – but who perished odious people, failed parents or spouses, sour and friendless souls, unforgiving taskmasters; remembered by those who knew them not with wistful smiles but grimly pursed lips. In history books they yield a footnote or two; maybe luminous ones. In the hearts of those who personally interacted with them? Only bitterness.

True enough, Antonin Scalia’s judicial footprint will remain a prodigious one for generations; but, as individuals innumerable will attest, that’s hardly where his legacy ends.


Share if you agree, Justice Scalia understood there was more to life than Supreme Court decisions.

Steve Pauwels

Steve Pauwels is pastor of Church of the King, Londonderry, NH and host of Striker Radio with Steve Pauwels on the Red State Talk Radio Network. He's also husband to the lovely Maureen and proud father of three fine sons: Mike, Sam and Jake.