Learning from Scalia’s example

Published 9:42 pm Friday, February 19, 2016

By Dr. Thurman R. Hayes Jr.

A few days ago, I was flying back to America when I learned that our country had suffered a grievous loss: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died.

Justice Scalia was the Court’s leading intellectual and its most influential jurist. He was the court’s best writer. (With his trademark humor, the language-loving Justice Scalia once described himself as a “SNOOT,” an acronym for Syntax Nerds Of Our Time.) Even when he was in the minority, Scalia’s dissents were so masterfully written and argued that they continued to influence.

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Scalia came by his love of language honestly. His father, an Italian immigrant, was a professor of Romance languages at Brooklyn College.

Young Antonin attended Xavier High School, a Jesuit military school in Manhattan, where he was valedictorian of his class. He then graduated from Georgetown, where again he was valedictorian. This was followed by Harvard Law School, where he edited the Law Review.

But Scalia, for all his brilliance, was no stuffy scholar. He was incredibly funny, folksy and charming. He loved to hunt and was on a quail-hunting trip when he died.

Although he was the Supreme Court’s most conservative justice, he was beloved by his fellow justices, whatever their views. His best friend was Justice Ginsburg, the court’s most liberal justice.

Their ideas about the Constitution could not have been more different, and they would argue forcefully for their positions. But they never took it personally, and their families traveled together and celebrated holidays together.

Interestingly, Justice Scalia also enjoyed taking his liberal colleague, Justice Elena Kagan, on hunting trips, and had turned her into a duck hunter.

In a poisoned political landscape where many people can’t seem to differ without screaming at each other, the Supreme Court justices are a great model of civility and mutual respect.

Justice Scalia championed something called “originalism,” which simply means that the job of a Justice is to understand what the writers of the Constitution originally intended when they wrote it.

This separated him from more liberal justices, who believe that judges can and must go beyond the intent of the framers. (For instance, the Constitution’s writers obviously never intended that what they were writing could sanction abortion or gay marriage, but court liberals have declared both to be constitutional.)

Originalists like Scalia do not believe such things, which were never intended by the framers, should be ruled as constitutional.

He was fond of saying that if people wanted to change the laws, let the people vote on the laws, but do not expect judges like him to make up rights that were never intended by the writers.

The way Justice Scalia approached the Constitution is precisely the way the reader must approach the Bible. Our first task as faithful readers of Scripture is to understand the original intent of the writer. Then, and only then, can we interpret and apply it accurately.

As I sit down to study a passage in preparation for a sermon each week, this is exactly what I do. I am simply trying to understand the original intent of the author. I must never make up meanings that the author never intended. Instead, I must faithfully preach what the author intended. And in the case of the Bible, the ultimate author is God.

Dr. Thurman R. Hayes is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Suffolk. Follow him on Twitter at @ThurmanHayesJr.