Death of a judicial giant

Friends recall Antonin Scalia, LLB ’60, and his contributions both to jurisprudence and to Harvard

February 16, 2016
by Christina Pazzanese, Harvard Staff Writer

Extracts from an article in the Harvard Gazette on the death of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, and its implications for the current political cycle. 

It’s rare that the sudden death of a 79-year-old man comes as a shock to the nation, but when that man is Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, a legal giant and defender of conservative jurisprudence with a rapier wit and formidable intellect, the reaction seems to fit the figure.

Scalia, a 1960 LLB graduate of Harvard Law School (HLS), was found dead Saturday (Feb. 13) at a West Texas resort. The loss touched many members of the Harvard community and prompted a flood of condolences, tributes, and memories from friends, colleagues, admirers, and ideological adversaries.

Immediately, politics

Scalia’s death, creating the possibility of 4-4 votes in a group of high-profile cases, further ratchets up the political stakes in what is already one of the most contentious and chaotic presidential election cycles in modern American history.

Veteran political analyst David Gergen, public service professor of public leadership and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), said that what’s coming is “a political firestorm that is likely to grow in coming months.”

“Voters on both sides are now awakening to the reality that elections this November will decide the future direction not only of the White House and Senate but the Supreme Court as well. For the first time in memory, all three branches of government will be in play,” Gergen said in an email.

“If President Obama nominates an outstanding person to the Court — someone who commands enormous respect from the public — it is certainly possible that opinion will come down firmly on his side, and mainstream Republicans will break ranks, forcing a confirmation this year,” Gergen added.

“But the more likely outcome is that there will be a bloody fight that ends in gridlock. In that case, the next president will come into office with one vacancy to fill and as many as three additional vacancies to fill in a first term,” since Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kennedy are now in their 80s.

Steven Jarding, a lecturer in public policy at HKS and an authority on campaign management and political strategy, warned that while such an obstructionist strategy may help Republicans placate their base now, the move could end up riling both Democrats and independents who are fed up with years of gridlock in Washington.

“I think that they better be really careful with this one, because in this climate a lot of people are looking and saying, ‘We don’t like politicians to begin with.’ Well, this is a perfect example of a group of people playing politics, in this case with the lives and the legal constitutional rights of the American people,” he said. “I just don’t think there’ll be a lot of tolerance for it.”

With 11 months left in the Obama administration and the wait between nomination and confirmation averaging 71 days, Jarding said, “There’s plenty of time to name a justice; there’s plenty of time to get them approved. If this were George W. Bush and he had one year left, they wouldn’t be holding this up for the next president. If it was two or three months, maybe. But a year? Come on.”

“I think they are absolutely playing with fire,” said Jarding.

Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court Justice

Justice Scalia delivered the inaugural Vaughan Lecture in 2008, one of several occasions he returned to Harvard to speak.

Photo by Phil Farnsworth

“Voters on both sides are now awakening to the reality that elections this November will decide the future direction not only of the White House and Senate but the Supreme Court as well.” --David Gergen, public service professor of public leadership

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