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February 15, 2016

Justice Antonin Scalia taught America a lot about respect

The late 79-year-old from Trenton leaves behind a legacy of making personal friendships despite political differences

Let’s stop being surprised by America’s partisan reaction to all matters of life and most matters of death. We’re well beyond a place where everybody will wield dignity and respect in situations that have traditionally called for them.

One needn’t look past this weekend’s news about the passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a Trenton native with a penchant for argumentation, for supporting arguments.

No sooner had Scalia died than Republican legislators, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, issued a pre-emptive decree about their unwillingness to fulfill their responsibilities and online reactions veered in every direction up to, and including, the stance that the 79-year-old deserved his Texas ranch fate.

If Scalia teaches us, in even a limited sense, to listen to one another, his legacy will extend well beyond the stifling decisions he made from the bench.

It took mere minutes of social media peeking around to see this predictable divide forming.

So, it took mere minutes for me to mount a moralistic soapbox and declare, “Never revel in another’s death. It’s unbecoming.” (This is my responsibility as a raised-but-long-lapsed Catholic.)

Thus, in accordance with the rules governing our collective desire to be heard while stifling other voices, it took fewer than 20 minutes for someone to maintain that, as a straight white male, I had no standing to comment on this issue.

Yeah. OK. Sure. Good luck stifling me without a machete, finger-breaking sledgehammer or lip-flesh-friendly sewing machine.

Here’s the thing: I realize full well that Scalia’s decisions weren’t for everybody, particularly those who want society to – y’know – evolve and grow with equality and fairness for all. Heck, they helped foment a culture in conflict.

That’s what happens when a strict constitutional originalist/textualist is confirmed via a 98-0 vote in the U.S. Senate. America got the boisterously conservative voice it paid for. No refunds. All sales final. Here’s an index card so you can share your thoughts in the SCOTUS complaints box, but it won’t make a difference.

Some fascinating stories trickled out in the hours since father-of-nine Scalia’s passing. Those remembrances held that those who disagreed with, but personally knew, him thought Scalia was a remarkably decent dude.

Take fellow Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal stalwart who said she and Scalia “were best buddies.”

“It was my great good fortune to have known him as a working colleague and treasured friend,” Ginsburg said of her fallen peer.

Write this off as merely an example of people saying nice things about the dead because they’re dead at your own risk; the public record of their friendship stretches way back (see here and here).

Columnist’s Exhibit No. 2 comes from David Axelrod, chief strategist on both of President Barack Obama’s successful campaigns for the White House. Now a political commentator on CNN, he shared his own Scalia story a day after Scalia’s passing.

The story comes from 2009, when then-Justice David Souter announced his plans to retire from the bench.

They shared a table at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, an event that eviscerates any illusion of distance between Beltway political press and Beltway political power.

Per Axelrod, Scalia leaned over and, making direct eye contact, said, “I have no illusions that your man will nominate someone who shares my orientation, but I hope he sends us someone smart. Let me put a finer point on it: I hope he sends us Elena Kagan."

Translation: A conservative Supreme Court justice read the lay of the land and, knowing someone like-minded wouldn’t be joining him on the nine-person bench, was trying to send a message to the president to nominate a sharp-minded liberal with whom he could intellectually joust.

Result: While Sonia Sotomayor got that nomination, Kagan would join the Supreme Court after Justice John Paul Stevens' retirement a year later.

Concluded Axelrod, “We have become inured to the animus that characterizes the relationship between many of our elected officials in these highly partisan times. But members of the court, free from the pressures of running for office, relate to each other in a different way. So much so that a conservative lion would lobby the President's adviser for his liberal friend.”

That’s an amazing statement not insofar as people get along amid rancorous times, but that people getting along amid rancorous times is something that would shock most Americans. That’s how far we’ve fallen.

I’m under no illusion that the Supreme Court nomination will become anything but a partisan steel-cage match presented as an Us-vs.-Them battle for the very future of America. Make no mistake about it, though: Scalia would be lambasting the statements McConnell made before his body was even cold.

So, let’s revisit America’s partisan reaction to all matters of life and most matters of death, and the dearth of people willing to wield dignity and respect in situations that have traditionally called for them anyway, shall we?

To me, Scalia’s legacy will be that of a person who stood by his intellectual principles while befriending those whose beliefs represented the exact opposite of his, leaving the heated debate behind when it came time to be a living, breathing human. 

His were not friendships of political expedience; they were friendships of mutual respect.

That is something to which we (from U.S. senators to kindergartners) should all aspire – recognizing "enemies" as people worthy of robust discussion – unless, of course, we’re lazy enough to just accept the status quo.

If Scalia teaches us, in even a limited sense, to listen to one another, his legacy will extend well beyond the stifling decisions he made from the bench, and we'll all be better off because of it.