Farewell to a Great Dissenter: Antonin Scalia, RIP

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has died after three decades on the Court. May he rest in peace. He will no doubt be the subject of extensive and detailed tributes in the coming days, and the object of more than a few good-riddances as well. Here I simply recall his work with gratitude.  As a jurist, he was a steady opponent of Roe v. Wade – not because of his Catholic faith, but because he found Roe had no Constitutional basis.

No, he did not in his writing assert a fundamental right to life for preborn children. What he asserted, repeatedly, was that Roe was wrongly decided and could not be defended by resorting to the plain language of the Constitution.

He was often at odds with his colleagues over this. As Justice John Marshall Harlan was known as the Great Dissenter of his age (he served from 1877 to 1911), so Scalia deserves to be known today.

His opinions were refreshing for their crisp language as well as their content, particularly when read after the opaque prose produced by some of his fellow Justices. I offer excerpts of his work here, without analysis, in small tribute to his service.

Hodgdon v. Minnesota (1990): a parental notification case 

“I continue to dissent from this enterprise of devising an Abortion Code, and from the illusion that we have authority to do so.”

As I understand the various opinions today: One Justice holds that two-parent notification is unconstitutional (at least in the present circumstances) without judicial bypass, but constitutional with bypass, ante, at (O’Connor, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment); four Justices would hold that two-parent notification is constitutional with or without bypass, post, at (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part); four Justices would hold that two-parent notification is unconstitutional with or without bypass, though the four apply two different standards, ante, at (opinion of Stevens, J.), ante, at (Marshall, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); six Justices hold that one-parent notification with bypass is constitutional, though for two different sets of reasons, Ohio v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health, ante, p.; ante, at (Stevens, J., concurring in judgment); and three Justices would hold that one-parent notification with bypass is unconstitutional, ante, at (Blackmun, J., dissenting). One will search in vain the document we are supposed to be construing for text that provides the basis for the argument over these distinctions; and will find in our society’s tradition regarding abortion no hint that the distinctions are constitutionally relevant, much less any indication how a constitutional argument about them ought to be resolved. The random and unpredictable results of our consequently unchanneled individual views make it increasingly evident, Term after Term, that the tools for this job are not to be found in the lawyer’s and hence not in the judge’s workbox. I continue to dissent from this enterprise of devising an Abortion Code, and from the illusion that we have authority to do so.

Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989): upholding state restrictions on abortion funding

“…the mansion of constitutionalized abortion law, constructed overnight in Roe v. Wade, must be disassembled doorjamb by doorjamb…”

The outcome of today’s case will doubtless be heralded as a triumph of judicial statesmanship. It is not that, unless it is statesmanlike needlessly to prolong this Court’s self-awarded sovereignty over a field where it has little proper business, since the answers to most of the cruel questions posed are political, and not juridical — a sovereignty which therefore quite properly, but to the great damage of the Court, makes it the object of the sort of organized public pressure that political institutions in a democracy ought to receive…It thus appears that the mansion of constitutionalized abortion law, constructed overnight in Roe v. Wade, must be disassembled doorjamb by doorjamb, and never entirely brought down, no matter how wrong it may be.

Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992): upholding some state regulation on abortion and overturning others

“Roe‘s mandate for abortion on demand destroyed the compromises of the past, rendered compromise impossible for the future, and required the entire issue to be resolved uniformly, at the national level.”

That is, quite simply, the issue in this case: not whether the power of a woman to abort her unborn child is a “liberty” in the absolute sense; or even whether it is a liberty of great importance to many women. Of course it is both. The issue is whether it is a liberty protected by the Constitution of the United States. I am sure it is not….because of two simple facts: (1) the Constitution says absolutely nothing about it, and (2) the longstanding traditions of American society have permitted it to be legally proscribed.…The emptiness of the “reasoned judgment” that produced Roe is displayed in plain view by the fact that, after more than 19 years of effort by some of the brightest (and most determined) legal minds in the country, after more than 10 cases upholding abortion rights in this Court, and after dozens upon dozens of amicus briefs submitted in this and other cases, the best the Court can do to explain how it is that the word “liberty” must be thought to include the right to destroy human fetuses is to rattle off a collection of adjectives that simply decorate a value judgment and conceal a political choice….Pre-Roe, moreover, political compromise was possible. Roe‘s mandate for abortion on demand destroyed the compromises of the past, rendered compromise impossible for the future, and required the entire issue to be resolved uniformly, at the national level.

Stenberg v. Carhart (2000): striking down a partial-birth abortion ban 

 “I am optimistic enough to believe that, one day, Stenberg v. Carhart will be assigned its rightful place in the history of this Court’s jurisprudence beside Korematsu and Dred Scott.”

I am optimistic enough to believe that, one day, Stenberg v. Carhart will be assigned its rightful place in the history of this Court’s jurisprudence beside Korematsu and Dred Scott. The method of killing a human child–one cannot even accurately say an entirely unborn human child–proscribed by this statute is so horrible that the most clinical description of it evokes a shudder of revulsion. And the Court must know (as most state legislatures banning this procedure have concluded) that demanding a “health exception”–which requires the abortionist to assure himself that, in his expert medical judgment, this method is, in the case at hand, marginally safer than others (how can one prove the contrary beyond a reasonable doubt?)–is to give live-birth abortion free rein. The notion that the Constitution of the United States, designed, among other things, “to establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, . . . and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” prohibits the States from simply banning this visibly brutal means of eliminating our half-born posterity is quite simply absurd….While I am in an I-told-you-so mood, I must recall my bemusement, in Casey, at the joint opinion’s expressed belief that Roe v. Wade had “call[ed] the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution”…[I]f only for the sake of its own preservation, the Court should return this matter to the people–where the Constitution, by its silence on the subject, left it–and let them decide, State by State, whether this practice should be allowed. Casey must be overruled.

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3 thoughts on “Farewell to a Great Dissenter: Antonin Scalia, RIP

  1. I sure hope congress does everything within their power to prevent Obama from appointing a successor. How much more can we take? Roberts was the biggest disappointmen5 other that Router. Both. Devils in disguise.

    1. Senate leadership is making discouraging noises about any Obama appointment. We’ll see how that plays out. As for Roberts – and Ginsberg, for that matter – I take the possibly-foolish view that they could see the light someday and eventually put their formidable talents at the service of life.
      Thank you for reading.

  2. “I continue to dissent from this enterprise of devising an Abortion Code, and from the illusion that we have authority to do so.”

    Let’s think about this statement.

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