Given the backdrop of a presidential election, the shifting demographics of the nation, and the ideological balance of the court, it would seem the stakes could hardly get any higher when it comes to naming a new Supreme Court justice.
For now, however, we would like to set aside the political set-to that promises to kick off in the wake of the unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia in Texas over the weekend.
For all of his critics, and they are legion, Scalia is generally acknowledged to be one of the great justices of the 20th century. In time, as memories of our current partisan divisions fade, the esteem in which he is held is expected to increase.
While Scalia may be perceived by the general public as a caricature of the contemporary arch conservative, scholars believe he will be long remembered for his dedication to the concept of “originalism,” or interpreting the Constitution based on the specific text and original intent of the authors.
Writing in The Atlantic this week, Jeff Rosen noted Scalia’s influence is most visible in the arguments liberal justices and scholars now use about constitutional text and history. “More than any justice since the liberal lion William Brennan, Scalia changed the way Americans debate the Constitution, and for that he deserves great respect,” Rosen wrote.
While Scalia may have let his personal opinions be known, his legal opinions are typically couched in a consistent interpretation of the Constitution, and a deference to the democratic process.
The nomination process to succeed Scalia promises to be a bitterly divisive one and the stakes are high. If we are lucky, we will emerge with a justice as formidable and capable as Antonin Scalia. If so, with luck, someday we will have reason to mourn the loss of another giant.