Published: Dec. 1, 2014

Calls his originalist view of constitution “Tough Row to Hoe”

Justice Antonin ScaliaEven an outspoken U.S. Supreme Court Justice knows the art of circumspection: Asked when an upcoming case would be heard and about conflicting federal and state drug laws, Justice Antonin Scalia demurred.

“I know when, but I’m not going to tell you,” he told a law professor seeking a scoop on a hot topic. “Soon! Soon!”

The justice also held back when asked how the court might approach a hypothetical case challenging permissive state drug laws.

“I’m not going to respond to that, because it would force me to have to recuse myself,” he said, grinning.

Then he gave a hint: The hypothetical case “hinges on” the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, he said.

Appointed in 1986, Scalia is the longest serving sitting justice. On Oct. 1 he delivered the Fourth Annual John Paul Stevens Lecture, hosted by the University of Colorado Law School’s Byron R. White Center, which is named for former Justice and CU alumnus Byron White (Econ’38). So far, a justice or retired justice has given each lecture.

Scalia’s formal remarks addressed originalism — a legal philosophy that holds the Constitution should be interpreted according to its meaning at the time of adoption. (He’s an originalist.)

He also addressed blogs, legal education, amicus briefs and his sense of kinship with Frodo, the underdog hobbit from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Being an originalist is “a tough row to hoe,” Scalia told a Macky Auditorium crowd of about 1,600 that included CU President Bruce Benson (Geol’64, HonDocSci’04), CU-Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano, Regents and hundreds of students.

Scalia also offered a blunt opinion about the possibility of televising Supreme Court proceedings: “I think it would be a perfectly awful idea.”

Most viewers would not watch the full proceedings, ultimately getting a distorted view of them from sound bites played on the news, he said.

Scalia also suggested the presence of cameras might tempt lawyers — and perhaps some justices — to play to the cameras.

“I’m a ham,” he joked.

Photography by Casey A. Cass