Wow. The New York Magazine interview between Jennifer Senior and Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonin Scalia highlights the link between his very literal, ultra-conservative thinking on Catholicism and his Constitutional textualism and originalism. This is a man who’s obviously extremely smart, yet somehow has this massive blind spot in his intellectual and ethical development thanks to his views on religion, which strongly colors how he interprets the Constitution. Your views on religion will no doubt inform whether or not you think I’m completely missing the mark on this:
Scalia: “Maybe the world is spinning toward a wider acceptance of homosexual rights, and here’s Scalia, standing athwart it. At least standing athwart it as a constitutional entitlement. But I have never been custodian of my legacy. When I’m dead and gone, I’ll either be sublimely happy or terribly unhappy.
You believe in heaven and hell?
Oh, of course I do. Don’t you believe in heaven and hell?
Does that mean I’m not going?
[Laughing.] Unfortunately not!
Wait, to heaven or hell?
It doesn’t mean you’re not going to hell, just because you don’t believe in it. That’s Catholic doctrine! Everyone is going one place or the other.
But you don’t have to be a Catholic to get into heaven? Or believe in it?
Of course not!
Oh. So you don’t know where I’m going. Thank God.
I don’t know where you’re going. I don’t even know whether Judas Iscariot is in hell. I mean, that’s what the pope meant when he said, “Who am I to judge?” He may have recanted and had severe penance just before he died. Who knows?
Can we talk about your drafting process—
[Leans in, stage-whispers.] I even believe in the Devil.
Of course! Yeah, he’s a real person. Hey, c’mon, that’s standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that.
Every Catholic believes this? There’s a wide variety of Catholics out there …
If you are faithful to Catholic dogma, that is certainly a large part of it.
Have you seen evidence of the Devil lately?
You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the Devil is doing all sorts of things. He’s making pigs run off cliffs, he’s possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn’t happen very much anymore.
It’s because he’s smart.
So what’s he doing now?
What he’s doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He’s much more successful that way.
That has really painful implications for atheists. Are you sure that’s the Devil’s work?
I didn’t say atheists are the Devil’s work.
Well, you’re saying the Devil is persuading people to not believe in God. Couldn’t there be other reasons to not believe?
Well, there certainly can be other reasons. But it certainly favors the Devil’s desires. I mean, c’mon, that’s the explanation for why there’s not demonic possession all over the place. That always puzzled me. What happened to the Devil, you know? He used to be all over the place. He used to be all over the New Testament.
What happened to him?
He just got wilier.
He got wilier.
Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?
You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the Devil.
I hope you weren’t sensing contempt from me. It wasn’t your belief that surprised me so much as how boldly you expressed it.
I was offended by that. I really was.
Fast forward to Scalia’s similarly reverent, unquestioning attitude towards the Constitution:
Scalia: “I truly thought I’d never see an originalist on the faculty of Harvard Law School. You know, everybody copies Harvard—that’s the big ship. There are now three originalists on the faculty, and I think I heard that they’ve just hired, or are considering hiring, a fourth. I mean, that’s amazing to me. Elena Kagan did that, and the reason she did it is that you want to have on your faculty representatives of all responsible points of view. What it means is that at least originalism is now regarded as a respectable approach to constitutional interpretation. And it really wasn’t twenty years ago, it was not even worth talking about in serious academic circles.
An area where I think I have made more progress is textualism. I think the current Court pays much more attention to the words of a statute than the Court did in the eighties. And uses much less legislative history. If you read some of our opinions from the eighties, my God, two thirds of the opinions were discussing committee reports and floor statements and all that garbage. We don’t do much of that anymore. And I think I have assisted in that transition.”
Fifty years from now, which decisions in your tenure do you think will be heroic?
Oh, my goodness. I have no idea. You know, for all I know, 50 years from now I may be the Justice Sutherland of the late-twentieth and early-21st century, who’s regarded as: “He was on the losing side of everything, an old fogey, the old view.” And I don’t care.
Do you think you’re headed in that direction?
I have no idea. There are those who think I am, I’m sure. I can see that happening, just as some of the justices in the early years of the New Deal are now painted as old fogies. It can happen.
Wow, it’s amazing your mind even went there. I ask about a triumph, and you give me another answer entirely, about the possibility of failure. I was expecting you to end on a high note. Do you want to try another stab at a heroic decision?
Heroic is probably the wrong word. I mean the most heroic opinion—maybe the only heroic opinion I ever issued— was my statement refusing to recuse.
You should read the whole interview, which is fascinating.