Law & the Courts

On Living Well: Five Lessons from Antonin Scalia

Scalia in 2006 (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
His former law clerk recalls the legendary Supreme Court justice on the anniversary of his death.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who died one year ago today, was very good at what he did. As many have attested in their moving tributes to him, he had the judicial virtues in spades — intellect, wisdom, impartiality, and eloquence. Our great-great-grandchildren will learn his name. If they go to law school (and maybe even if they don’t), they will study his opinions.

That alone would be reason to raise a glass to his memory on the anniversary of his passing. But there is more. As I was to learn while clerking for him, Justice Scalia was not only a great judge; he was also a profoundly good man. More than his personality or his jurisprudence, his character — that quality of soul forged by a lifetime of choices — seemed most to anchor and account for all that he did, both on and off the court. And so it was his character that left the deepest impression on many of his law clerks.

Yet the humanity of Antonin Scalia was rarely in the spotlight, so his private virtues are little known today. In the interest of expanding the public’s view of the man and his morals — and in lieu of the self-help book that he never wrote (In Nino Veritas: Straight Talk from a Supreme Court Justice on Becoming the Better You!) — here are five life lessons that have stayed with me:

1. Be honest, even in the small things, and even when it makes life more difficult.

We learn as children that honesty is the best policy, but when truthfulness and convenience diverge, we sometimes take the easier path. It is hard to pass up a shortcut.

Courts are not immune to this temptation. Every lawyer has read a judicial opinion that distinguishes a past case on bogus grounds: “Plaintiff cites John v. Doe, but that holding was ultimately motivated by a concern for due process, not equal protection,” when in fact the words “due process” do not appear in Doe, even between the lines.

A cynic sees no problem. “So what? If you’ve got the votes, you can say whatever you’d like about a prior case. And, especially if it’s some obscure tax or bankruptcy decision, would anyone care?” Justice Scalia would — and did: No matter the kind of case or the tally of votes, he would not join a proposed opinion that, to his knowledge, misrepresented a precedent in an attempt to distinguish or apply it. He would instead write his own opinion, if need be.

That meant extra work. But the work was necessary, so the justice would do it readily. He understood that, just as courts have a right to candid lawyering, the parties and the people (for whom the courts work) are entitled to honest judging, even in minor matters. Anyway, when it comes to one’s duties, there are no truly “minor matters.” As the justice once told a class of high-school graduates, “our choices” — all of them — “really matter,” and “everything depends on them.”

2. Engage with counterarguments.

It is tempting to wall off our minds from opposing views. Confronting them can be stressful, and a fear of cognitive dissonance can make us act irrationally. We find comfort in avoiding or disregarding them.

When a conflicting argument came his way, he would neither dodge nor dismiss it. He would look it in the eye.

Justice Scalia had a different practice. When a conflicting argument came his way, he would neither dodge nor dismiss it. He would look it in the eye. His job was to get things right, which meant he had to be open to seeing where he went wrong. But even when he was convinced to a certainty that he was correct (which was not infrequently), he thought he owed it to the parties and his colleagues to engage their counterarguments fairly and fully, and to document that engagement in his opinion for all to see. And so, in extra paragraphs or footnotes (neither of which he liked to add — he aimed for short, crisp opinions), he would pay the dignity of a response.

There is an important lesson in this. As the example of Socrates teaches, we arrive at truth through dialogue. Not in the wishy-washy sense of “hearing others out” and remaining perpetually undecided, but by thinking through objections and engaging in the hard back-and-forth of debate. Only then do we come to see, with a stinging clarity, when our views need adjusting or sharpening. (Or scrapping.) But even when we’re sure of ourselves, we respect our colleagues, friends, and fellow citizens by squarely addressing their critiques.

3. Prepare yourself to make a hard choice, should your conscience ever require it.

This was one of the few bits of explicit mentoring advice that the justice gave. The topic of conversation was government service. Thomas More, the justice’s hero, famously proclaimed from the scaffold, “I die the king’s good servant, and God’s first.” While public servants are rarely put to a choice as stark as More’s, a subordinate is sometimes told to perform an act that his or her well-formed conscience forbids, and competing considerations influence the subordinate to choose wrongly.

Don’t be that person, Justice Scalia said. Instead, preemptively strike at the thing most likely to lead you astray: concern for your career. Before taking the job, have a backup plan, an exit strategy. Don’t burn bridges; you may need them for your escape. If, for example, you’re an attorney leaving private practice for the government, he said, build a book of business that you know you can pull off the shelf, should you need to return to your former post.

In other words, don’t be so foolish as to simply assume that you will make the right call under tremendous pressure. Instead, improve the odds now that you will do the right thing then: Plan ahead to protect yourself from making bad but expedient choices in all areas of life.

4. Don’t neglect the family dinner table, or any other duties properly part of a fully human life.

Justice Scalia helped raise nine wonderful sons and daughters, whose flourishing he attributed in part to the ritual Scalia family dinner. “Be home for dinner,” he was known to tell clerks. “Children are civilized at the dinner table.”

He didn’t mean the gathering was to be a somber, manners-instilling affair. And reports are that Scalia dinners were hardly that. As his son Christopher remembers, “It’s true that we’d often discuss law, history and politics. But Dad’s running gags,” such as “crumpling his napkin into a ball and throwing it into one of our glasses,” “ensured our kitchen would never be mistaken for a salon.” The table offered fun and fellowship, conviviality and conversation.

Work sometimes overcomes our plans, but it must never eclipse family, the justice believed. Nor should it crowd out other obligations. “Try to find [work] that enables you to maintain a human existence,” he told a group of law students, “time to attend to your other very real responsibilities — to your family, to your church or synagogues, to your communities.”

5. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

This line, uttered by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, was repeated by the justice at least a dozen times during my clerkship. In plainer prose: “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day. Do not to be anxious about tomorrow.”

It seemed Justice Scalia never was. Perhaps life tenure had something to do with it, but the better explanation is that he did not live in his head. Not in the least a control freak, he did not fret over what did not matter. He did not tremble under the stress of his taxing work. And he cared not at all about his legacy. (The only time a fellow law clerk witnessed the justice unable to recall a word, it was that one.) Rather, he went about tending to his many life commitments with irrepressible joy and deep serenity. Any grumpiness passed as quickly as a “summer thunderstorm,” Justice Clarence Thomas once observed.

Saint Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” That was Justice Scalia — a man fully alive, and thoroughly happy. His many virtues were the key to his flourishing. And they are just as much a part of his legacy as are his judgeship and jurisprudence.


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