News & Politics

Two Personal Tributes to the Late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

Now that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away, stories about his true greatness are coming out. The man’s opinions might have been firm, uncompromising, even biting — but his character and heart were surprisingly kind and gracious.

Jeffrey Tucker, director of digital development at the Foundation for Economic Education and “chief liberty officer” at the startup, decided to break silence on a personal story involving Scalia. After church one day, Scalia stayed late to pray, and so did a woman with “lashing sores on her face and hands…open sores.” Tucker recalls “there was some disease, and not just physically. She behaved strangely, a troubled person that you meet in large cities and quickly walk away from.”

When the woman approached Scalia, he didn’t back away, but took her hands and listened to her story.

He held her face next to his, and she talked beneath her tears that were now streaming down his suit. He didn’t flinch. He didn’t try to get away. He just held her while she spoke. This lasted for perhaps more than 5 minutes. He closed his eyes while she she spoke, gripping her back with his hand.

He didn’t recoil. He stood there with conviction. And love.

Tucker kept mum about this story, because “charity is simply a form of love, and genuine love does not seek out public recognition.” Tucker, an outspoken libertarian, said this moment touched him, and proved that power does not corrupt all men. “What I saw that day was the rare exception. Power did not corrupt this man. He remained true to himself and true to his principles.”

Another story came from the opposite side of the aisle. David Axelrod, CNN’s senior political commentator and former senior adviser to President Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns, recalled a surprising request from Justice Scalia. When Justice David Souter retired from the Supreme Court, Scalia supported an unlikely choice — Elena Kagan.

Axelrod remembers talking to Scalia at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in 2009.

“I have no illusions that your man will nominate someone who shares my orientation,” said Scalia, then in his 23rd year as the court’s leading and most provocative conservative voice. “But I hope he sends us someone smart.”

A little taken aback that he was engaging me on the subject, I searched for the right answer, and lamely offered one that signaled my slight discomfort with the topic. “I’m sure he will, Justice Scalia.”

He wasn’t done. Leaning forward, as if to share a confidential thought, he tried again.

“Let me put a finer point on it,” the justice said, in a lower, purposeful tone of voice, his eyes fixed on mine. “I hope he sends us Elena Kagan.”

Axelrod notes that he was surprised that Scalia would propose a nominee so bluntly, but also that it was Kagan. “Though she had worked on policy in the Clinton administration and had a reputation for pragmatism, Kagan plainly would be a liberal in the context of the court,” the Obama adviser explained.

But Kagan and Scalia were friends and “they shared an intellectual rigor and a robust sense of humor.” In Axelrod’s words, “if Scalia could not have a philosophical ally in the next court appointee, he had hoped, at least, for one with the heft to give him a good, honest fight.”

Although Kagan did not get that nomination — Sonia Sotomayor did — she later became Obama’s pick after the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. Her friendship with Scalia deepened on the court, and Scalia also made friends with another notoriously liberal justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In different but very personal ways, both Tucker and Axelrod thanked Scalia for his kind nature and his service to this country. He was a true servant and a good friend, even to the least deserving and the most hardened intellectual foes.