The death of Justice Antonin Scalia has ignited a political firestorm over how and when and who should be appointed to replace this irreplaceable conservative legal scholar. There has also been a torrent of articles about the man’s legacy. The Wall Street Journal alone has a dozen pieces recounting his effluence on the law and his “greatest hits.”
The one thing he should most be remembered for, perhaps, is his ardent defense of the First Amendment.
In July 2002 I wrote a column for the Las Vegas newspaper under the headline: “How do you solve a problem like Scalia?” It has long since disappeared from the ether.
The headline was lifted from a lyric by a liberal/satirical Washington, D.C.-based singing and dancing group who called themselves the Capitol Steps. It, of course, is a parody of the “Sound of Music” song about Maria.
The ditty includes these lines:
How do you solve a problem like Scalia?
How do you fix the mess Scalia made?
How do you find a legal panacea?
If he doesn’t go, we’ll overturn Roe v. Wade
Oh, maybe now Bush owes Antonin a favor
Maybe our reputation isn’t sound
Remember when they’d report
The president picks the court
It’s gotten to be the other way around
My column’s solution to the problem was: cloning, because there aren’t enough like him on the court.
The specific topic was the court’s ruling and Scalia’s 5-4 majority opinion in the case of Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, which had been handed down a couple of weeks earlier.
It upheld the free speech rights of state judicial candidates. A number of states, including Nevada, had laws on the books that basically gagged elected judges from speaking out about matters they might someday have to rule on.
Nevada had fined two judges for answering a radio host’s question about their political party affiliation.
The American Bar Association had a conniption fit over the ruling, saying it would turn judicial elections into unseemly free-for-alls. Of course, the Bar didn’t and doesn’t think voters are smart enough to elect judges.
Scalia quoted an earlier dissent by Justice Thurgood Marshall: “[T]he greater power to dispense with elections altogether does not include the lesser power to conduct elections under conditions of state-imposed voter ignorance. If the State chooses to tap the energy and the legitimizing power of the democratic process, it must accord the participants in that process … the First Amendment rights that attach to their roles.”
Scalia went on to reason: “Moreover, the notion that the special context of electioneering justifies an abridgment of the right to speak out on disputed issues sets our First Amendment jurisprudence on its head. ‘[D]ebate on the qualifications of candidates’ is ‘at the core of our electoral process and of the First Amendment freedoms,’ not at the edges. … ‘The role that elected officials play in our society makes it all the more imperative that they be allowed freely to express themselves on matters of current public importance.’ … ‘It is simply not the function of government to select which issues are worth discussing or debating in the course of a political campaign.’ … We have never allowed the government to prohibit candidates from communicating relevant information to voters during an election.”
Of course, such matters are never truly settled and judges find ways to dance around those “edges.”
Just a couple of weeks ago the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sitting en banc managed to uphold an Arizona law that limits judges’ right to free speech about judicial elections.
One of the judges supporting this free speech restriction was Nevada’s own Johnnie B. Rawlinson, who was appointed to the court by Bill Clinton at the urging of Sen. Harry Reid.
A story in today’s Review-Journal quotes a law professor as saying Reid had once touted Rawlinson as a potential candidate for the Supreme Court.
Not exactly someone who could fill Scalia’s shoes.