When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away suddenly in February of 2016, his open seat immediately became an election issue. Senate Republicans gambled on blocking Merrick Garland’s nomination, but were rewarded when President Trump appointed notable conservative judge Neil Gorsuch to take Scalia’s place.
But Scalia left behind much, much more than an empty seat and big shoes to fill on the Supreme Court. He also left behind a legacy of speeches that he delivered numerous times over the course of his career.
Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived, edited by Scalia’s son Christopher and former clerk Ed Whelan, is a collection of Justice Scalia’s finest speeches, which cover a number of topics. Most of the speeches have never been published before and they offer an excellent view of Scalia’s life, legal arguments, religious beliefs, and sense of humor. I interviewed Chris Scalia about his father and what it was like to work on this project.
Tell me a little bit about the background to this book. When did you know this was something you wanted to work on? What was the process like going through your father’s speeches? How many did you ultimately read before deciding on which ones to publish?
Ed Whelan and I started the project last November. We read through about 200 of my father’s speeches, and the hardest part was deciding which speeches not to include. We finally settled on the several dozen we thought represented my father’s range of interests and would be enjoyed by a wide audience.
The experience was powerful. Part of that power was therapeutic in that I could practically hear his voice as I read through the speeches—and it was good to hear him again. It was also just fun: He was a remarkable writer, and his personality comes through very strongly in these speeches—his humor, his intelligence, his passion. I obviously felt privileged to read through them and share them with other people.
Justice Ginsburg wrote a very thoughtful foreword for the book where she commented on her friendship with your father. How did that collaboration [between you and her] happen and how was it working with her on this project?
We simply asked her to write it, and she very graciously agreed to devote some of her valuable time to work on it—and even to record the foreword for the audiobook. (She was also generous enough to participate in an interview with my mother about her friendship with my dad.) I’m very, very grateful for her contributions. They’re a testament to her friendship with my parents and her generous nature.
In one of your father’s speeches (“Writing Well”) he said that “I think there is a writing genius as well—which consists primarily, I think, of the ability to place oneself in the shoes of one’s audience; to assume only what they assume; to anticipate what they anticipate; to explain what they need explained; to think what they must be thinking; to feel what they must be feeling.” Do you think your father considered himself such a writer?
That’s one of my favorite passages in the collection. But to say that my father thought he was that kind of a writer would imply that he thought he was a great writer, and that would make him seem like a braggart when, in fact, I never heard him boast about his writing. But I certainly think that this description fits him, particularly in these speeches. He engages with his audiences. He anticipates and addresses objections. He appeals to their values and beliefs.
A great example of this is the speech “The Arts,” which he delivered at the Juilliard School. He starts by acknowledging how odd his appearance there may seem (especially because he was on a panel that included an opera singer and a Broadway composer), then pokes a bit of fun at lawyers, establishes his own love of the arts, and then delivers an argument about the First Amendment he knows the audience won’t like very much. All the while, he anticipates their counter-arguments, appeals to their love for the arts, and expresses shared interests and concerns.
Scalia Speaks covers a lot of ground on a lot of different topics. But what overarching lessons should aspiring writers of all backgrounds take from this collection of speeches?
I’ll refer to passages from “Writing Well”: It takes hard work—what he calls “time and sweat”—to be a good writer. And sloppy writing signifies a sloppy mind.
In a number of your father’s speeches he uses the phrase “let’s face it” before diving into a blunt truth. Did he ever really believe in mincing words or did he always favor approaching an issue directly?
Let’s face it: When delivering an argument, it’s important to be clear and direct. So he’s often blunt—but he’s not only blunt. He’s often very funny, and often that humor is self-deprecating. One of my favorite passages is the first sentence of “Games and Sports”: “I have been asked many, many times to what do I attribute my well-known athletic prowess.” No, he wasn’t. There are also some remarkably beautiful, even lyrical passages, particularly in the eulogies and tributes. I think his range—both in subject matter and tone—is one the most impressive things about these speeches.
Did you learn anything new about your father as you edited this book? If so, what?
In my introduction to the collection, I mention a passage from a speech we didn’t include, during which my father described his love for conducting research—the excitement of making surprising discoveries, of generating new ideas. This was a revelation to me: For some reason, I had never thought to talk to him about that, even though I’d been an English professor and he had been a law professor. It was exciting to know that we shared that love.
For the most part, though, working on the collection gave me a deeper appreciation for and admiration of aspects of my father’s personality I’d already been familiar with—particularly his humor, his courage, and the clarity of his thought.
Do you think your father’s legacy is beginning to come into focus? How do you see it being defined—both in terms of Supreme Court jurisprudence, but also culturally?
I think people appreciated his influence on the Court, and particularly his arguments for originalism and textualism (his approaches to interpreting the Constitution and statutes, respectively), before he died. I hope this collection helps clarify that for more Americans. Culturally, I think his defenses of religious faith in a secular world are especially important.
If there is one thing you want people to take away from this collection of speeches, what would it be and why?
I’ll answer that by repeating an insight my father liked to offer audiences (including my high school graduating class at our commencement), something his father told him: Brains can be hired by the hour, just like muscle. Only character is not for sale at any price.