SAN DIEGO – Far be it from me to speak ill of the deceased. But if I hear one more superficial tribute to a jurist who helped divide America, I’m going to be sick.
In promoting a collective mourning, the admirers of Justice Antonin Scalia have selective memory. And, unfortunately, the media are playing along. The Fourth Estate used to just report the news. Now we create memes. We manufacture story lines, and we work hard to preserve them.
Too many journalists would rather repeat the mantra that is out there than stick their neck out by being the only one who says something different. A former editor once correctly noted that the media are “like birds on a wire.” They all come to the same story, she said. And they all cover it in largely the same way.
And, with Scalia’s sudden passing, a series of memes have arisen. There’s the one about how he was able to maintain friendships across the ideological spectrum, including an odd-couple rapport with liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And the one about how Scalia was an unfailing originalist when it came to the Constitution, trying to remain faithful to what he believed the Framers had in mind when they crafted the document in the late 1700s.
Thus, we’re told, by many in the chattering classes, that whether or not we agreed with Scalia’s decisions – all Americans should honor his service to this country. In fact, they say, we should all be yearning to hear his voice just once more.
I’m sorry, but I’m not feeling the yearn. I love this country. And my ancestors have been here much longer than Scalia’s. The justice was a first-generation American whose father was from Sicily. My father was born in the United States, and so was my mother. The same goes for three grandparents.
Yet, for the last 30 years, as I followed the Supreme Court, I never felt well-served by Scalia. On cases ranging from immigration to voting rights to affirmative action, it soon became clear that the first Italian-American on the Supreme Court wasn’t there for me, or anyone who looks like me.
As he charged into one cultural minefield after another over the years, I can guarantee you that Scalia wasn’t thinking about people like my parents, uncles and aunts. They all grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, an era when Mexican-Americans had limited opportunities and suffered overt discrimination. Later attempts by government, universities and corporations to level the playing field for minorities were strongly condemned by Scalia as unfair to the majority.
Commentators have spent the last few days saying how Scalia was nothing less than brilliant. But brilliant people show empathy, refresh their thinking and evolve with the times. They seek out different points of view and try to learn from them. There is no evidence that Scalia did any of that. In fact, his fans are praising his consistency.
But from where I sit, many of his rulings were consistently bad – harmed by the fact that he couldn’t seem to get beyond a worldview that was narrow and provincial. It is clear from reading many of his opinions that he was, throughout his life, a true believer in conservative dogma. And, too often, that influenced his view of the law as he wandered into politics.
That’s what happened a few years ago when the high court heard arguments about the constitutionality of the Arizona immigration law, and Scalia launched into a tirade about how the Obama administration wasn’t deporting enough people. One had nothing to do with the other. He was roundly criticized by pundits and law professors alike, some of whom insisted that his ruling sounded more like a campaign ad.
Scalia’s supporters will claim that, like any good jurist, he simply called balls and strikes as he saw them. But if that’s the case, why did he say in an interview a few years ago that he hoped whomever replaced him didn’t undo what he had done – as if he had pursued an agenda that he would like to see preserved?
No doubt, Scalia was a worthy champion for his cause. But that’s the problem. As a judge, the only cause he was supposed to champion was the pursuit of justice. In that arena, he sometimes came up short.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.