Last week, another prominent New Yorker died. Mario Cuomo’s passing in 2015 received plenty of attention, but the death of Antonin Scalia, another Long Island native (both from Queens County), was national news with flags flying at half mast all across the nation.
When President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986, it was during the high tide of American-style conservatism. It appeared that Scalia was at that vanguard of a legal counter-revolution. However, with the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, that tide receded backward in a hurry. As a result, Scalia spent a career in dissent. He was very much the Jesse Helms of the Supreme Court. Helms, an equally conservative senator from North Carolina, was probably on the losing end of more 99-1 votes in U.S. Senate history. Scalia, if he didn’t cast the most dissenting votes, may have written the greatest number of dissenting opinions, at least in recent court history. Those dissents could be acerbic, witty, angry and learned. Constantly in the minority, Scalia hoped that such dissents might educate the rising generation of legal scholars.
Scalia, by all reports, enjoyed his time in public service immensely. He was both a prolific author and a prolific progenitor, siring a brood of nine children, including one who became a Catholic priest. He was friendly with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, his fellow New Yorkers on the court. Also according to reports, the Scalia family and the Ginsburg family often socialized, proving that ideological differences may not impede personal friendships.
Scalia will be remembered, if at all, as one of those “beautiful losers,” a term that inspired an old Leonard Cohen tune. Scalia’s signature legal philosophy, “original intent” went out of fashion in the early 1940s and has stayed in the minority ever since. This is not criticism. Scalia, through no fault of his own, had simply seen history pass him by.
Still, for a most robust life, one devoted to scholarship and family and all performed with a cheerful disposition, Antonin Scalia is a fine model for young people to emulate.