Skip to main content

First Thoughts on the death of Antonin Scalia

Portrait of Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court

News of the death of Justice Scalia, a Reagan appointee, has broken in upon our endless political campaign, and will surely give the candidates something new to talk about in the weeks to come.

That was very first thought on hearing this news. I apologize to those to whom it seems crude. I have no personal knowledge of Scalia, but am perfectly happy to believe that he was a wonderful man and to commiserate with his family and friends. I disagree with his jurisprudential ideas in a number of respects. But my first thought was and is neither personal nor jurisprudential; it was and is plainly political. 

Further, I'm thinking just now of another campaign year, 1968. In June of that year, Chief Justice Earl Warren announced his retirement. He did this precisely because he thought it would give President Johnson plenty of time to choose a replacement for him, and the Senate time to act upon it, thus preserving his own considerable legacy. 

Johnson replied by nominating Abe Fortas, one of the Associate Justices, to move on up to the Chief Justiceship, and nominating one of his Texas cronies, Homer Thornberry, to take Fortas' seat. This was a mistake on a couple of levels. Controversies arose over Fortas' behavior on the bench, which was in some respects irresponsible, and those controversies allowed the Republicans in the Senate to delay any action on either of these appointments. The upshot was that when a new President came into office in 1969 there was still a vacancy at the Chieftaincy, and there would soon be a second -- Fortas would be forced to resign. 

That was June 1968. This is February, four months earlier in the election cycle. Still, Obama will surely want to make an appointment with some rapidity, and the Republicans will surely want to keep this seat open for as long as they have any hopes about November. 

We'll see how it all plays out.  


Popular posts from this blog

Great Chain of Being

One of the points that Lovejoy makes in the book of that title I mentioned last week is the importance, in the Neo-Platonist conceptions and in the later development of the "chain of being" metaphor, of what he calls the principle of plenitude. This is the underlying notion that everything that can exist must exist, that creation would not be possible at all were it to leave gaps.

The value of this idea for a certain type of theodicy is clear enough.

This caused theological difficulties when these ideas were absorbed into Christianity.  I'll quote a bit of what Lovejoy has to say about those difficulties:

"For that conception, when taken over into Christianity, had to be accommodated to very different principles, drawn from other sources, which forbade its literal interpretation; to carry it through to what seemed to be its necessary implications was to be sure of falling into one theological pitfall or another."

The big pitfalls were: determinism on the on…

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…