Donal Blaney is the founder – and a former trustee – of the Margaret Thatcher Centre.
The sudden and untimely death of US Senior Associate Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday has robbed America of its greatest jurist. Warm, witty, searingly brilliant, Nino Scalia was the conservative anchor that ensured that his colleagues never forgot the importance of textualism when interpreting the US constitution, even if in later years his frustrations grew. And yet even as they grew, he remained able to develop close friendships with those with whom he disagreed sincerely, most notably his liberal colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
I had the privilege of hosting Justice Scalia at the Old Bailey and then over a private dinner at Gray’s Inn last summer. Ever modest, Scalia was humbled to be the recipient of the inaugural Margaret Thatcher Centre Rule of Law award. The Iron Lady was a great admirer of Justice Scalia and, like him, she was no fan of judges making laws that were more properly the preserve of legislators.
What struck me when Scalia gave an impromptu address to the practitioners, academics and students assembled at the Old Bailey last summer was how at ease he was in his own intellect, and yet how open he remained to reasoned debate. Not from him the shrillness that too many in the public sphere exhibit as a poor substitute for evidence-based rational thought.
I was also struck by his desire to engage with young people. When he agreed to a private dinner at Gray’s Inn, he made it plain to me that he wanted to hear from tomorrow’s young conservative leaders, be they lawyers or not. He loved the battle of ideas and, like Lady Thatcher, knew that battles are never won. They need to be fought over and over again by each generation anew.
Matthew Richardson told him a joke when he showed him around the Old Bailey.: “Why does Justice Scalia have 32 toothbrushes?” Scalia looked puzzled. “Because they are called toothbrushes, not teethbrushes”. The textualist apparently giggled and shared the joke in his self-deprecating way to colleagues, including Justice Alito with whom we had lunch a few days later in DC.
Sat alongside his redoubtable wife, Maureen, who is in our prayers after losing her husband of 55 years so unexpectedly as they planned for his retirement, Justice Scalia was wonderfully mischievous, indiscreet and robust in his views. No, he believed, we should not venerate the common law. Yes, he said, Britain was distinct in its jurisprudential philosophy from the rest of the EU and so it should remain. I asked him how it was that he had been confirmed without a vote against when Robert Bork had been blocked by the Senate. Simple, he said – Ted Kennedy realised he had many thousands of Italian-Americans in his state and he wasn’t about to block the appointment of the first Italian-American to the court even if he knew that that judge stood for everything that Kennedy opposed.
He referred to last year’s term at the Supreme Court as containing the worst judgments in 30 years on what he always called “my court”. He despaired at the woolly thinking of many of his colleagues and undoubtedly feared the worst for the United States if another Democrat won the White House in November. Visiting London during the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta he felt saddened that we in Britain lacked the desire to protect our ancient liberties with the determination of our American cousins.
He was fascinated by plans for a Margaret Thatcher Centre. He could not understand why she is not revered in Britain as much as Ronald Reagan is in the US. But the Centre must, he said, be a centre for the study of the interplay between liberty and the rule of law, and so it will be, in his honor as much as hers. He gladly endorsed our goals and said that he would return to speak to students in Britain again just as soon as he was free from the Supreme Court.
Sadly future generations have been robbed of the chance to hear from Antonin Scalia first hand. But he has left behind a treasure trove of judgments, usually dissenting judgments, that act as a beacon of hope for all those who love liberty and who wish to protect us from the tyranny of the state.
Indeed he explained to students from the Young Britons’ Foundation who met him at the Supreme Court for a private tour and briefing last July that he wrote those dissenting judgments in such colourful and robust terms precisely so as to inspire the next generation. Antonin Scalia pointed the way for us as lovers of liberty from the bench for 30 years. It now falls to us to follow his lead.