There are four deaths that have shaken me, with seismic force, to the core. Four that brought tears at the moment I found out about the loss. Only four.
The first was when my father died after a yearlong death match with lung cancer.
The second was when Pope John Paul II, who redefined my relationship with my baptismal faith, passed.
The third was when my mother passed away, leaving me, at 52, an orphan.
And the fourth came on a bone-chilling Saturday at twilight, when I learned that Justice Antonin Scalia had died in his sleep.
Scalia had a powerful impact on my life. I was in law school when President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the bench, and spent the next three decades absorbing his brilliant and revolutionary theories of the Constitution. Like the passive Catholic I’d been before John Paul II, I was unsure of how to interpret the Founders’ great philosophical compromise in my legal life.
Scalia changed that, in dramatic fashion. His brand of originalism, one which rejected “living document” fads that seemed to adapt to whatever social evolution got the most traction (most recently and unfortunately seen in the legalization of gay marriage), taught me how dangerous it is when judges replace their own esoteric views of due process and equal protection for the men who wisely created a bedrock document. “Living documents” gave us legalized abortion, racial quotas, same-sex unions, and the demonization of public prayer.
Many critics of Scalia, some more respectful than others, said he was trying to stop forward motion. But as the justice himself once famously said, “Movement is not necessarily progress.” He went on to shatter that old shibboleth of following your conscience by saying that it was important “not just to be zealous in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being: Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person begins with being a wise person. Then, when you follow your conscience, will you be headed in the right direction.”
It was that willingness to attack, head-on, the anesthetizing effect of moral relativism that enraged his critics. How dare he, they thought, tell us how to live our lives? Who is he, almighty in those black robes, to dictate behavior? Where is his tolerance?
And Scalia came back with that pragmatic genius and said that society had a right to dictate certain standards of morality, and this manufactured acceptance of everything in the name of “compassion” was touchy-feely nonsense having nothing to do with the Constitution. Just because Bruce wants to be called Caitlyn and Cecile wants babies doesn’t mean the Constitution supports them.
The liberals hated Scalia for being being told that sometimes, following a flawed conscience was just as bad as having none at all. And we, on the right, loved him with equal passion.
As iconic as he was in his profession and in public, he was extremely humble in private. I met him only twice, briefly, but I will never forget his spirited eyes, his very un-Justice-like smile and his willingness to speak a few words of Italian. He elevated my mother’s people, and my own identity as an Italian woman, to exalted heights. As my friend Gabriella said, he showed the country we weren’t all about meatballs and mafia guys. He reached the top of the mountain, and took us with him.
Scalia’s closest friend on the court was his philosophical antithesis, the very liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s another measure of Antonin Scalia’s greatness that he was loved by those who knew him as equally as he was by those who rejected his view of the law.
In the wake of his death, the praise and regret were mixed with the expected vitriol from starved intellects. It came from both sides, with liberals and conservatives politicizing the death. This is the time that makes me hate partisans, people who lose their humanity in the rush to gain an advantage. They are despicable.
But in the end, they’re irrelevant. What matters, and what remains, is the brilliant legacy of Antonin Scalia. I mourn his loss, I celebrate his memory.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org