Scalia sees narrow role for courts
Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia defended the Court’s role in the 2000 presidential recount in Florida and shared his views about the Court’s role in a liberal democracy before a packed audience in McCosh 50 on Friday night.
Scalia also received the James Madison Award for Distinguished Public Service at the event, co-sponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and Whig-Clio, which presented the award.
Whig-Clio president Molly Alarcon ’10 asked Scalia several questions selected from a pool that had been submitted in advance by Whig-Clio members.
Among the most controversial questions Scalia addressed was one from Forest Sebastian ’10 regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to stop the Florida vote recount in the 2000 presidential election.
“Get over it, it’s eight years ago,” Scalia said. “I think the vast majority of citizens in the country were glad [that the Supreme Court stopped the ballot recount].”
“We were the laughingstock of the world” because the United States seemed unable to determine its next president, he explained.
Even if the Court had not ended the recount, Scalia said, the Republican-controlled Florida government would have named George W. Bush the winner.
Alarcon challenged Scalia as to what extent the Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore was based on actual constitutional interpretation rather than “the need for expediency.”
Scalia explained that the Court’s decision on the Florida recount had nothing to do with speed but was instead based purely on issues of unconstitutionality.
“In case you didn’t notice, I didn’t like the area in particular,” Scalia said in reference to the case.
Thomas Dollar ’08, who attended the lecture, noted that Scalia “got very testy when asked about Bush v. Gore.”
Scalia also stressed the importance of the Court within the constitutional framework of checks and balances. “The whole point of the separation of powers is that each of the three branches [of government] must be dependent on the others,” he said, adding that the mission of the courts “is to protect individuals from harm.”
The concept of separation of powers is “not more true for the courts than it is for the executive,” he explained. “We wouldn’t allow the president to conduct unreasonable searches and seizures if that was the only way to put an end to the drug trade.”
One of the main areas in which Scalia has often diverged from other members of the Court, he explained, was in his attempt to stick to the role defined by the Constitution, as opposed to theoretical notions of what the Court might do.
“We can have a very stimulating debate on what these terms ought to mean in Utopias,” he said, adding that the role of the Court embodied by the decree of the Constitution is quite different.
Scalia also said he opposed what he sees as an expansion of the Court’s power.
“There are simply some things that courts cannot do, and if that means that there are some wrongs that courts cannot right, so be it,” Scalia said, adding that “it is simply not the rule that courts can do whatever it takes to right the wrong.”
Alarcon praised Scalia for his role in shaping theories of jurisprudence when presenting him with the Madison award.
“Few jurists in the history of the Supreme Court have played so prominent a role in advancing a method of interpretation as Justice Scalia has,” she said.
“Whether one agrees or disagrees with his style of constitutional interpretation, it’s easy to respect his intellectual prowess and personal integrity,” Alarcon said.
“I hope that in the few years remaining, I do nothing to cause you to regret having given [the award] to me,” Scalia said.
The James Madison Award, named after the fourth U.S. president and one of Whig-Clio’s earliest members, is presented each year to an individual who is dedicated to the nation’s service and the service of all nations. Past recipients have included former President Bill Clinton, Supreme Court justices Earl Warren and Sandra Day O’Connor, and former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
Whig-Clio director of events Joel Alicea ’10, who played a key role in arranging the lecture, said he invited Scalia because “of the justices sitting on the court, he is one of the most provocative and by far one of the most historically important.”
“Because he has chosen to advocate a method of interpretation and has had such remarkable success, it’s impossible to deny that he’s one of the most influential justices of the Supreme Court,” Alicea added.
Alicea explained that when he was taking a class last spring with Robert George, politics professor and founding director of the James Madison Program, he was able to infer from some of George’s anecdotes that George knew Scalia personally.
George then helped Alicea by forwarding his invitation to Scalia’s e-mail address.
“Without Professor George, we really wouldn’t have been able to get him to come,” Alicea said.
Alicea said that he hoped that students would appreciate the chance to listen to Scalia’s words.
Former Whig-Clio president Devjoy Sengupta ’09 said Scalia was “very engaging” and “well known for his intellectual vigor.” Sengupta is also director of national advertising for The Daily Princetonian.
Students attending the lecture generally voiced respect for Scalia’s oratory, though some disagreed with the justice’s views.
“[Scalia] is a very captivating speaker and storyteller, although I think his political philosophy is absurd,” Dollar said.“It’s really great that the University is willing to invite a variety of speakers [to come to campus],” Steve Marcus ’10 said, but added he was disappointed that only Whig-Clio members were allowed to submit questions to Scalia.