Monday, February 16, 2009

You Want Nasty and Impolite?

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's recent pissy response to a student who asked him a question about why he opposes the televising of Supreme Court decisions yet eagerly goes out on publicity tours for his own books—"That's a nasty, impolite question," he said—reminded me of the only time my own path crossed with his.

It was in the mid-1980s, either shortly before Scalia joined the Supreme Court or shortly after; I don't remember which. At any rate, he was a controversial figure even then, and he attracted a correspondingly large audience when he made an appearance at Emory University in Atlanta. For the most part, the questions and answers were respectful and predictable; Scalia was already well-practiced in his Federalist Society/originalism shtick, and I was charitable enough (or gullible enough) in those days to take it seriously—as was most of the audience. At one point, however, a couple of the scruffier, more radical students—there weren't many in those days, but they did exist—stood up and shouted at Scalia, "You're just a fascist pig!" Or maybe it was, "You're nothing but a right-wing pig!" Or maybe "You're just a chauvinist pig!" I don't remember exactly; I'm fairly certain that the noun was pig, but my memory of the adjectives is hazy. At any rate, it was way more nasty and impolite than the recent question Scalia got in West Palm Beach.

The audience reaction was immediate: much of the audience booed the outburst, and when one of the clean-cut young Republican youths jumped up and loudly apologized to Scalia for the other students' remark, he got a vigorous round of applause. At the time, I'm a little sad now to say, I joined in that applause. I did not agree with or like Scalia, but I was horrified at hearing a Supreme Court justice spoken to in that fashion. I suppose that a part of me still would be.

But let's just say that now, after twenty-odd years of Scalian jurisprudence—and lord knows how many more to go—my reaction to such an outburst would be...different.

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