“Forget about state rights. They’re gone!”
If there was a list of phrases to never say in the state of Virginia, this one would probably top the list. Yet, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia doesn’t seem to mind much about his audience. When he visited CNU on October 18, 2012 to speak with students, he pulled no punches. Antonin Scalia is appointed to the highest court in America for the remainder of his life. He doesn’t have to worry about embarrassing himself and losing prestige or his job. He doesn’t need to worry about getting reelected. This freedom from societal pressure allows Justice Scalia to be honest and sincere, as well as entertaining. He was easily smartest person in a room full of 1200 educated people.
To the chagrin of all the professors present, Scalia downplayed education in favor of luck and character in terms of its relation to success. “Good luck beats early rising,” he said at the 3pm Student Q&A sessions, during which invited students had the opportunity to candidly ask the Justice and his companion, Judge Henry Hudson, questions. At the evening event he quoted his father, saying, “You can hire brains by the hour. The only thing not for sale is character.” His emphasis on the importance of character and luck stood out in a speaker series that focuses primarily on the importance of leadership through education and making good connections.
What was immediately striking about Scalia was his youthful energy and his enthusiasm to speak his mind. Scalia acted like a man twenty years his junior and had a mind that was as sharp as can be. The short, stocky, overtly Italian Scalia doesn’t need to stand over you to be an imposing figure, but when he cracks his smile and starts speaking, it is clear that he is as easy to talk to as a favorite professor. While many students walked into the events of the day with misgivings and expected a stuffy, unapproachable judge, Scalia’s openness and sincerity helped everyone to relax and enjoy the talks. One line that he used, both at the private Q&A session and at the public talk later that night, laid out why he became a lawyer. He was not initially sure he wished to go into law but his Uncle Vinnie—and “every Italian has an Uncle Vinnie”—was a lawyer so he thought he would give it a go.
Despite the fact that Scalia has not always been in the majority in the court, and he admitted that his constitutional theory of interpretation is not as widely accepted in the U.S. as he would like, Scalia did not come across as someone who stays up at night worrying about the future of our country. He knows what his place is in the government and when he was asked about his opinions on specific policies he responded by saying, “I am a policy eunuch. They write it. I review it. That’s it.” Echoing the tone set by Chief Justice Roberts in the recent healthcare decision, he explained that the Supreme Court doesn’t decide whether a law is a good one or a bad one. Rather, their job is to decide whether it is constitutional or not.
Regardless of whether or not students agreed with Scalia’s interpretation of the Constitution, everyone seemed to enjoy the man’s presentation. Perhaps this was because it was so clear that he was having a blast with us. When President Paul Trible stepped onto the stage to signify the end of the evening’s Q&A session, Justice Scalia declined to step down, saying, “I’m having such a good time,” This was met with a rousing round of applause that one might expect for an encore performance at a Mumford & Sons concert. His sincerity and obvious love for what he does helped students warm up to the man, even if they still disagree with his opinions.
If nothing else, Justice Scalia represents the pinnacle of success, which he said means, “being the best at what you love”. His definition of success was one that does not rely on power or money or promotions. It is one that emphasizes the importance of character and enjoying what you do. This standard of success is one that every CNU student strives to reach, and is fully capable of obtaining. In this and many other ways, Justice Scalia was the perfect speaker for the President’s Leadership Program and the student body of Christopher Newport University as a whole.