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In Memoriam: Antonin Scalia (1936–2016)

ISI mourns the loss of Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly on Saturday. A legal and intellectual giant who served thirty years on the U.S. Supreme Court, this ISI alumnus was an extraordinary jurist whose influence will be felt well into the future.

Justice Scalia is perhaps best known for championing constitutional interpretation according to the original understanding of the document. He eloquently—even mercilessly—exposed the emptiness of “living Constitution” claims and the Constitution-means-whatever-we-say-it-means rationalizations of other justices. His dissents (some of the best of which are collected in a book) read not as dry legal opinions but as powerful jeremiads.

Justice Scalia gave the keynote speech at ISI’s fiftieth-anniversary dinner, in 2003. He used that occasion to discuss how the liberal legal establishment so often ignored the Constitution to push for some favored outcome. “Most of today’s experts on the Constitution,” he said, “think the document written in Philadelphia in 1787 was simply an early attempt at the construction of what is called a liberal political order. All that the person interpreting or applying that document has to do is to read up on the latest academic understanding of liberal political theory and interpolate these constitutional understandings into the constitutional text.”

Even Scalia’s opponents conceded his brilliance. But it was among conservatives, of course, that his influence was and remains most profound. As fellow ISI alumnus Ross Douthat writes in the New York Times, “Scalia’s combination of brilliance, eloquence, and good timing—he was appointed to the court in 1986, a handful of years after the Federalist Society was founded, and with it the conservative legal movement as we know it—ensured that his ideas, originalism in constitutional law and textualism in statutory interpretation, would set the agenda for a serious judicial conservatism.”

Justice Scalia was a friend to ISI for many decades. He became involved with ISI when he was still a young law professor. It was then, he later said, that he “first began to take part in the ISI program of trying to stimulate the intellectual debate in the nation’s capital.” During his 2003 fiftieth-anniversary speech, he praised ISI for displaying “a special concern for an historical understanding of our constitutional traditions, conveying to students the contemporary elements of what Russell Kirk called ‘the roots of American order.’” Sadly, Scalia added, such an approach “flies in the face of the dominant intellectual prejudice of our age.”

The same can be said for Justice Scalia’s principled, philosophically rigorous jurisprudence. Requiescat in pace.

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