In Washington, D.C., on the presidential campaign trail and on cable news shows, it seems like everyone is talking about the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and what it means for the future of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In Centre County, others are remembering the longtime jurist.
One lawyer even had a personal connection.
“I was a student of Justice Scalia’s during a summer abroad program at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, in 1998,” said Penn State Law professor Jill Engle, director of the school’s Family Law Clinic. “His short course on separation of powers taught me a great deal about the history of the Supreme Court, the Federalist Papers and some of the Court’s landmark decisions.”
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He taught her a lot, although they had different positions on the issues.
“I disagree with his views on the role of Court and with most of his decisions, but he was a brilliant teacher,” she said. “He repeatedly stressed his view of the Constitution as not being a ‘living document’ subject to interpretation like many of the progressive jurists. ... Again, I disagree, but to hear him explain his reasons why was fascinating.”
And for someone known to be a strict constructionist, he also had a playful side.
He told our class that sometimes he had to jump up on the table like Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and sing ‘Traditioooon’ to make the point to his fellow Justices. And he did sing it, with a beautiful voice.
Family Law Clinic Director Jill Engle
“To illustrate his point that the Court’s traditional Constitutional Law findings were not only good enough, but must necessarily stand on their own, he told our class tongue-in-cheek that sometimes he had to jump up on the table like Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and sing ‘Traditioooon’ to make the point to his fellow Justices. And he did sing it, with a beautiful voice,” Engle said.
She remembers a friendly man who had no trouble chatting with his students between lessons and in down time.
“He even indulged me by taking a photo with me despite my having missed the 30 minutes set aside for our class photo opp, teasing me about having missed the window of opportunity but posing for the camera beside me with his infectious smile. I keep that photo on my desk,” Engle said. “I have never liked anyone so much whose legal and world views I disagree with so much.”
She is not the only one who holds different views on the law than the man whose opinions have shaped so many interpretations of the law, from his majority role on gun control and political campaigning, or his dissents on same-sex marriage and immigration.
Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia is Penn State Law’s Samuel Weiss Faculty Scholar. She directs the Center for Immigrants Rights Clinic.
“I am saddened about Justice Scalia’s death as it relates to its impact on his family, loved ones and to the intellectual conversation. Though my personal views diverged significantly, Justice Scalia was an extraordinary man and someone I grew from and with intellectually,” she said.
But in practice, his opinions could hit hard at Wadhia’s clients.
The absence of Justice Scalia brings great uncertainty.
Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, Penn State Law Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic director
“In the courtroom, Justice Scalia’s death could have enormous impact on the immigration case United States v. Texas, which I have written about most recently here and which if upheld as lawful would protect certain noncitizens from deportation if they entered the United States as young people or are parents of U.S. citizens or green-card-holders,” she said. “The absence of Justice Scalia brings great uncertainty to the outcome in this case and as an illustration offers the possibility that a 4-4 decision by the Court could be struck.”
Despite his death, Scalia’s fingerprints are all over court decisions that touch daily lives.
“In the law school classroom, I have as recently as last month covered a Supreme Court decision made by the late Justice in my ‘Asylum and Refugee Law’ class,” Wadhia said. “My students, a mix of second- and third-year law students, have engaged in the distinctions and differences ... among the justices and this one in particular. His death marks the end of an era and, I hope, will move students at Penn State Law to appreciate the role of judicial nominations, politics and then some.”
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller appreciates Scalia’s role in the court.
“Justice Scalia’s death is certainly the loss of a great legal mind. While he was known as the leading conservative on the bench, one does not have to agree lockstep with all of his written opinions and dissents to recognize he was an extraordinary legal mind who attempted to discharge his duties on the Court honorably,” she said. “He also changed the Court to a highly engaging Court, putting people on the hot seat to deal with issues directly.”
One does not have to agree lockstep with all of his written opinions and dissents to recognize he was an extraordinary legal mind who attempted to discharge his duties on the Court honorably.
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller
She also spoke of the personality he brought to the court.
“He quoted Shakespeare and Sesame Street in his opinions and his dissents are famous for his colorful prose,” she said. “He was fond of saying, ‘I’m an Italian from Queens,’ emphasizing he had humble beginnings. He was a unique, self-made man with nine children, the first man of Italian-American heritage on the Supreme Court.”
The question for many is what happens next.
“The really interesting issues will appear as his death will now be the subject of a power play for the Supreme Court’s majority and and whether that can or will be accomplished before the presidency changes hands,” Parks Miller said.