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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Justice Antonin Scalia and Nina Totenberg talk for the Smithsonian

Justice Antonin Scalia/
It pays to be a member of the Smithsonian Associates which hosted the event.

You may disagree with him, but you’ve got to admire his candor and humor.

Live and on stage at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium Tuesday night were two obviously old friends in "conversation."

It was the same night as the president's State of the Union speech which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia hasn't attended for about 16 years, he affirmed, and why is that, NPR's Nina Totenberg asked.

“It’s not unique….It has become a very political event [which] is not appropriate for justices” or “for military officers to be there”….and has “turned into a rather silly affair….a childish spectacle, and I don’t think I want to be there to lend dignity to it.” The audience applauded.

Well, said Nina, he goes to inaugurations. What’s the difference?

Hats.  Hats are one difference, and the justice and the NPR celebrity spent 10 minutes talking about the different hats he wears to inaugurations.

Justice Scalia’s obvious pride and joy is the U.S. Constitution.

“They should call it the changing Constitution, the morphing Constitution…. I sometimes call it dead to get a rise out of people….It’s an enduring Constitution….The Constitution means what the people understand it to be when the people ratified it. Why do I have to explain this stuff? It seems like common sense,” he said.

The Supreme Court is "a very noisy court," Nina said, and the justice said:  "I think I started it."

Sometimes Scalia asks questions "because it's so inherently dull and you try to liven things up a bit.  I often ask a question just for the hell of it."

At times audience members got the feeling that the exchange between the two was a well-rehearsed comedy hour,  a re-play of a re-play since they were both quite relaxed and so was the approximately 95 percent Caucasian crowd, about 70 percent of whom were over age 50, and who filled all 1,500 Lisner seats.  There were no security checks.

Nina said she gets asked more often about the Citizens United court decision than anything else and what does the justice have to say about it?

Well, “the sky has not fallen. [The] states have not been taken over by Daddy Warbucks. To get a fair campaign law, we’re going to let the incumbents write the restrictions?” (The crowd laughed heartily.)

The incumbents seek to protect the incumbents, and the political parties throw money at races when results are in doubt. They favor an “incumbent protection bill.”  (In the 5-4 Citizens decision, the Supreme Court held the government could not restrict political spending by corporations and unions.)
Asked about his disappointment with Chief Justice John Roberts' decision to affirm President Obama’s health care act, Justice Scalia said: “Who said that?...I don’t work for him and he doesn’t work for me. You win some; you lose some. That’s life. You just have to be resigned to it….I am disappointed [sometimes], but I stumble on.”

The outcomes of court decisions are not as important as the reasoning which “will affect hundreds of cases,” the justice said.

Yes, it is true:  He has given Justice Elena Kagan hunting instructions.   "I think she likes it [hunting]."

She started out with quail and pheasant, he said, and on a trip to Wyoming, he showed her how to nab antelope and mule deer, but that was a failure since she bagged none, but with one shot (and audience groans) she took out a white tailed doe "which she could have done in my driveway," Justice Scalia said to laughter.

Yes, as a teen, he had a radio show, dispensing advice to teenagers.  No, it was not about love, the justice enlightened Nina, but about manners and dating etiquette.  Mind Your Manners was the name, and the moderator was the late Allen Ludden who was married to the Betty White.

"They’d put us up at the Algonquin Hotel on Saturday nights" before the show on Sunday mornings.  "I liked it a lot."

Was he a wild teenager?

"Let’s just say I was an active teenager.” And adult.

Justice Scalia has nine children and 33 grandchildren, and his wife, Maureen, calls the shots about everything except the Constitution.

Justice Scalia, appointed to the Court by Ronald Reagan in 1986, looks good for 76.  He wore a suit and tie and spoke nonchalantly, without notes, sitting squarely in the chair, often with his hands on his knees.  Nina had done her homework and came with notes.

Photographs were prohibited.

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