On March 5, in an event sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice, Richard Hasen, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine, discussed his new book, The Justice of Contradictions: Antonin Scalia and the Politics of Disruption, with CNN legal journalist and Scalia biographer Joan Biskupic. During a lively conversation, they assessed the legacy of the often-controversial US Supreme Court justice, touching on topics that included not just Scalia’s originalist judicial philosophy but his use of sarcasm and humor.
Biskupic, who has covered the Supreme Court since 1989 and who interviewed Scalia extensively for her book American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, noted that the justice had a profound influence on generations of young lawyers—not only because he helped shape the conservative Federalist Society, but because of his memorably barbed writing style.
Hasen agreed, saying, “[Scalia] said he wrote his dissents for law students. He wrote them to be ‘pizzazzy’—that was his word—so that law students would read them, so that law professors would stick them in a casebook so students wouldn’t fall asleep.”
But Hasen questioned a key aspect of Scalia’s legacy, asserting that originalism was not the neutral, nonpolitical tool that the justice said it was. “Scalia purported to have the answer for how to decide difficult cases,” he said. “You would look at the text of the statute, you would look at the original public meaning of the constitutional provision, and you would apply these neutral principles.” In fact, more liberal justices such as John Paul Stevens used the same approach to reach very different conclusions, Hasen argued.
Noting that Scalia authored relatively few majority opinions in major cases, Hasen said that the justice’s most important influence lay in his ability to shift the Court’s middle ground. “He took a fairly extreme position on how to interpret statutes and how to read the Constitution, and he caused everyone to change how they spoke about these,” Hasen said. “Through the sheer force of his intellect and his writing style, he was able to get attention for his ideas in a way that a bland writer with less bold ideas would not have been able to.”
Watch the video of the event here (1 hours, 11 minutes):