The passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia signifies more than just an irreplaceable loss to our nation's legal system. Rare are people like Scalia who not only harbor tremendous intellect and excel as scholars, but also possess wisdom and a clear moral compass. As history has taught us, without wisdom and morality, knowledge alone can be a dangerous tool.
With this in mind, the Judaica site Aish provided a brief set of interesting facts about Justice Scalia that exemplified his moral clarity as it relates to the Jewish community. In both his everyday life and in the courtroom, Scalia proved to be a man of character and conviction:
Jerusalem is the Capital of Israel
Scalia was one of three dissenters in the 2015 case of Zivotofsky v. Kerry, which heard arguments that the United States should describe the place of birth of Americans born in Jerusalem as “Israel”.
Americans born in Jerusalem have had their place of birth described on their passports as “Jerusalem” since Israel’s founding. Menachem Zivotofsky, an American born in Jerusalem, had petitioned to have his passport reflect his place of birth as “Israel” instead. The case went to the Supreme Court, and many legal scholars thought the Court would recognize his plea, allowing “Jerusalem, Israel” to describe the place of birth on passports of Americans born in Jerusalem.
Instead, the Supreme Court ruled that Jerusalem continue to be listed without the word Israel on US passports. Criticizing his fellow justices, Antonin Scalia wrote that their reasoning was a “leap worthy of the Mad Hatter”, and firmly stated his belief that Americans born in Jerusalem should have “Israel” listed as their place of birth on their passports.
In 1989, Antonin Scalia was part of a majority on the Court that ruled that a menorah had the right to stand on public property.
The case – County of Allegheny v. ACLU – was brought by prominent US attorney Nathan Lewin, an Orthodox Jew who has defended Jewish rights before the Court – and was an old Harvard Law classmate and sparring partner of Justice Scalia.
Reading the Talmud
While Justice Antonin Scalia was known for his strong Catholic faith, he also found time to learn about other legal traditions – including Jewish law. Visiting the University at Buffalo Law School in 2002, he met with Adjunct Law Professor and Rabbi Noson Gurary and learned about what Judaism has to say on some pressing legal issues. Justice Scalia later wrote to Rabbi Gurary, expressing his appreciation of learning about Jewish law. “Knowledge of another legal system helped him to understand [the U.S. legal] system” better,” Gurary said about Scalia’s correspondence. Later that year, Scalia was one of only three Supreme Court Justices (along with two Jewish Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer) who attended and spoke at inaugural meeting for the National Institute for Judaic Law
The website also noted a few light-hearted facts about the late Justice that provide insight into his character. For instance, Scalia used the word "chutzpah" (a Yiddish term to describe brazenness or "nerve") in one of his official rulings. He also harbored an unlikely friendship with his liberal counterpart, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In fact, the two even vacationed with their families together routinely. Scalia once likened them to the "odd couple" and with his trademark sarcasm said of Ginsburg:
"She likes opera, and she's a very nice person... What's not to like? Except her views on the law."
The point is that Scalia did not have to agree with Justice Ginsburg in order for him to respect her and befriend her. He did not have to be Jewish in order to learn Jewish legal traditions or be a champion for the Jewish community. His mind was open. And that is the key. This is a far cry from the "social justice warriors" of today who can barely tolerate even the sound of a dissenting opinion let alone fathom befriending the person who holds it. If people, regardless of their politics, looked to Justice Scalia -- the human -- rather than Facebook-memes, as a role model, we'd all be better off.
Of course this is a mere snapshot in the life of a man who dedicated himself to public service, whose legal brilliance was unimpeachable and whose jurisprudence protected our constitution and our rights for three long decades. Justice Scalia fathered nine children who produced 36 grandchildren. He was a man guided by faith. What a legacy to have left behind. He is mocked only by those who wish they held in their entire body one-tenth of the wisdom and intellect he possessed in his pinkie-finger.
Rest in peace, Justice Scalia. Our country is the better for you and all you contributed, and is worse off now that you are gone.