Not dumping on anyone’s living tree: Scalia visits UK

3 July 2015 by

Photo credit: Guardian

Photo credit: Guardian

Last week’s decision of the United States Supreme Court in Obergefell v Hodges has been lauded across the world as a quantum leap for equality and human rights – “a victory for America”, according to President Obama. The Court held by a 5-4 majority that, pursuant to the 14th Amendment, same-sex couples across the United States have a constitutional right to marry. You can read my colleague Matthew Flinn’s analysis of the ruling here.

The previous week, the Court had held by 6-3 in King v Burwell that tax subsidies that make health insurance affordable for those on low incomes could continue. In doing so, it preserved an important plank of the Obamacare programme, ensuring the ongoing provision of subsidies to some 8.7 million Americans who would otherwise be unable to purchase health insurance.

Last night, the loudest dissenting voice in those cases – Justice Antonin Scalia – was in London to take part in an event hosted by the Federalist Society, an organisation he helped set up in 1982. The Society describes its aims as seeking to “promote the principles that the state exists to preserve freedom, that the separation of governmental powers is central to our [the US] Constitution, and that it is emphatically the province and duty of the judiciary to say what the law is, not what it should be.”


While the debate was wide-ranging, there was no getting away from the dramatic backdrop created by Obergefell and King. It is not very often that a passage from a court judgment goes viral, but Justice Kennedy’s final paragraph in the same sex marriage case heralded a new chapter in the history of the United States:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

Not everyone was enveloped in a warm and fuzzy feeling. Seated just along the bench from Justice Kennedy was the brooding presence of the Court’s biggest character, a judge known throughout America and the world for his conservatism, his staunch belief in constitutional originalism, and his mighty judicial wit.

Justice Scalia’s assessment of the moving thesis advanced by his colleagues was characteristically cutting, likening their prose to “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.” In the sort of tirade unlikely to be replicated in any dissenting judgment in our own Supreme Court, he attacked the “pretentious” style of the majority opinion, describing its content as “egotistic”, adding:

“One would think Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”

The same sex marriage case was the metaphorical red rag to the originalist bull, and Scalia pulled no punches in lamenting what he saw as his Court’s invasion into the rightful territory of Congress in a manner that had effectively ended a public debate on same sex marriage that he felt had “displayed American democracy at its best.” The opinion of his colleagues – Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan – lacked “even a thin veneer of law”. Scalia issued his dissent “to call attention to this Court’s threat to American democracy.”

His exasperation was equally apparent in King, describing the majority’s reasoning as “interpretive jiggery-pokery” and “pure applesauce”. He called for Obamacare to be renamed “Scotuscare” in a nod to the Supreme Court’s acronym.

Was there anything left to say? A gathering of lawyers was about to find out during an interview conducted by Professor Adam Tomkins. Scalia was not here to talk about Obergefell specifically, but there was only one subject on the lips of those who awaited his arrival.


It turned out he did have bit more to say. Scalia explained what he sees as the simple concept behind originalism – the idea that the Constitution’s meaning was fixed at the time of its enactment. It can be distinguished from the types of constitutional approaches seen elsewhere on the US Supreme Court bench, as well as in other jurisdictions such as Canada and the European Court of Human Rights which often apply a ‘living tree’ or ‘living instrument’ approach to determining what constitutions or conventions mean today.

Frustrated at constantly being asked to justify his approach, Scalia explained that “the justification is the Constitution”. He reads that Constitution “the same way I read Shakespeare”. ‘Living constitutionalists’ rarely have to explain their position, he said, but it is they who ought to justify the idea that “from this old document we can have all sorts of new things, like same sex marriage”. Scalia emphasised that the constitutional convention did not decide that the Constitution should have the meaning ascribed to it by members of the Supreme Court “from time to time.” Proponents of living constitutions, he explained, believe the constitution means whatever you think it ought to mean – “it’s a wonderfully seductive judicial theory.”

According to Justice Scalia, his colleagues were wrong to utilise the due process clause to ground their judgment that there was a constitutional right to same sex marriage. They had ascribed to that clause a “substantive due process” right, whereas all it really relates to is procedure. By doing so they had brought about a reality that Scalia believes a majority of Americans would be unlikely to support. (The evidence may be against him on that. In March 2015, a Wall Street Journal poll found that 59% of Americans were in favour of same sex marriage. This followed a Human Rights Campaign poll in February which found 60% support and 37% opposition and a CNN poll in the same month which found that 63% of respondents believed same-sex marriage was a constitutional right.)


It was pointed out by Professor Tomkins that, as an originalist, Scalia finds himself in a judicial minority, not only on his own court, where only Justice Thomas shares his approach, but also when one looks at other constitutional courts around the world. It was suggested that international judicial dialogue might present an opportunity for the cross-fertilisation of ideas.

Scalia didn’t think so, referring to the process as “cross-sterilisation”. He sees himself as an American judge who applies the American constitution. He never cites foreign law, apart from “very old” English cases, and only reads foreign judgments – of the Supreme Court of Israel, for example – “when I want to be really shocked, when I want to see that my court is not really so bad after all.” On his exchanges with UK judges he said “I don’t think we have a whole lot to teach each other. I like meeting with your Lord Justices but I can’t say I’ve learned anything.” He continued:

If I’m [Justice] Stephen Breyer and I’m writing the Constitution then of course I would consult with these people. But I’m not writing one – I’m reading one, and your Justices are not going to help me on that question… If my job is to revise the Constitution and keep it up-to-date, then of course – the world is my oyster.

Somewhat unconvincingly, he dismissed Professor Tomkins’ point that the framers of the Constitution themselves visited other countries, France in particular, mingling among a global elite and learning from the likes of Montesquieu and Locke. For Scalia, the framers were really breaking away from what had gone before, “taking the best of what was available”. Equally, he made clear that when he visits other countries he does not evangelise as to the virtues of an originalist approach: “I don’t go to Canada and dump on their living tree.”

A UK Bill of Rights

The discussion ended with Scalia being asked whether he had any advice for David Cameron on the possible replacement of the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. Leaving aside questions of international judicial diplomacy, had such a question been asked of a British judge it is hard to imagine any substantive comment in response.

Justice Scalia clearly felt unhindered by such concerns: “You can’t do any worse than the situation you’re in now”. He pointed to the importance of being specific when agreeing to a Convention. He noted that sometimes Conventions contain some general provisions, which creates “the chance for mischief”. Alluding to the ECHR, he said that the worst of all worlds was a situation in which a country had a general convention with some international group interpreting its meaning – “so it’s not even your own people sending you to hell.” As bad as the situation is where a domestic court is interpreting a convention comprised of general provisions, “at least it will be visited on you by Englishmen… or Scots!”

American democracy under threat?

Reading Scalia’s dissent in Obergefell and listening to him speak last night, one cannot doubt that his concerns about what the case means for the democratic process in the United States are deeply held. The system of Presidential appointments and Senate ‘confirmations’ in the American system – often baffling to international observers – is always likely to lead to divisions along ‘political’ lines. Such divisions were particularly stark in Obergefell, with the Court’s ‘liberal’ wing of five forming the majority  and its four conservatives comprising the minority. It cannot be such a surprise that the link between the political and the judicial spheres of American government will, for better or worse, lead to a blurring of the boundaries between the two.

The debate that might ensue in the long Presidential election campaign ahead could feature similar concerns about ‘unelected judges’ to those seen in the UK. For some in a country as passionate about politics as it is deeply divided over them, the court in Washington might seem almost as foreign as the courts in Strasbourg and Luxembourg appear to some British voters.

The role of the US Supreme Court might, as a consequence, assume a prominence at the crux of political life that even it has not had before.


  1. Nico says:

    This is a great piece and a fascinating account of a meeting which I have not seen reported anywhere else, thank you very much!

    I (and I suspect other observers of the SCOTUS) take issue with one remark made towards the end though: the notion of there being a ‘liberal majority of five’ on the court is fanciful. Its patterns of appointment suggests a conservative majority of five (Justice Kennedy, after all, is an appointee of George W Bush), and its recent jurisprudence on some issues (including the gay marriage cases) suggests a 4:4 situation with Justice Anthony Kennedy frequently acting as the ‘swing vote’. This is reflected in a wide range of cases from the death penalty drug case, and recent voting rights cases (with one exception, as far as I am aware), to the affirmative action cases.

    In some regards this is arguably the most conservative SCOTUS in a long time, although it handed down some apparently liberal decisions of late. The reasons for this may be quite varied (e.g. personal reasons: Justice Thomas and the Texas confederate number plate case; Kennedy and his recent enthusiasm for the concept of personal dignity and the same-sex marriage cases; Chief Justice Roberts and pragmatism as in King v Burwell), but I would suspect that a general liberal turn or domination by any liberal majority is not what is happening.

    1. John says:

      Nico: you are right. I don’t think any of the existing Supreme Court Justices has been appointed by a Democrat President. They have all been appointed by Republican Presidents – and that has been no accident.
      It seems even normally conservative-minded Justices can eventually find the views of someone like Scalia so repellent that even they turn against him.
      I would also add – in response to Jeremy’s point – that Supreme Court Justices are essentially political appointments. Some of the people appointed in the past have had little formal legal education to draw upon when making their judgments but they had the advantage of being much more switched on to societal changes and developments than dry as dust old judges.
      This is why people like Scalia kick against what they call judicial activism; they prefer judicial quietism, which – of course – favours the status quo and pre-existing social power relations.

      1. Jim Duffy says:

        Thank you Nico and John. Even in the American system it is difficult to pigeon-hole each of the Justices politically, and the judgments of members of each ‘wing’ I described often confound any attempt to do so. Not all of the Justices were appointed by Republican Presidents, however: Ginsburg and Breyer were appointed by Clinton, and Sotomayor and Kagan are Obama appointees. For completeness Scalia and Kennedy – on opposite sides of the divide in the same sex marriage case – were appointed by Ronald Reagan, with Alito, Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts appointed by George W. Bush.

        1. John says:

          Jim: Thank You for the updated information on which Presidents nominated which Justices.
          It is always most useful to be in full possession of the facts.
          Even though Presidents propose and Congress disposes, sometimes Justices can surprise their original and subsequent nominees, as the office of Supreme Court Justice appears to mold their beliefs and convictions over time to more properly reflect societal thinking.
          Bizarre to say they end up promoting political agendas that politicans are reluctant to advocate.

  2. Charles T lawson says:


  3. Jeremy Wickins says:

    It remains a mystery to me that anyone – especially a judge – can think that a document written for a different time (and, effectively, place) should be adhered to as it was written. That a judge with that opinion, and apparently unable to articulate exactly why he thinks this, can be one of the most powerful in one of the most powerful countries in the world is almost beyond all understanding …

    1. NCHutcheson says:

      I think it’s really strange that people like yourself seem to willfully misunderstand people like Scalia. This is a well-respected judge.

      I’ll rewrite your post so that it is, potentially, correct:

      “It remains a mystery to me that anyone – especially a judge – can think that a document written for a different time (and, effectively, place) should be adhered to [by the court] as it was written. That a judge with that option, [-and][who is] apparently [-un]able to articulate exactly why he thinks this, can be one of the most powerful [judges] in one of the most powerful countries in the world is almost beyond all understanding…”

      If you can’t see the difference between what I wrote and what you wrote then there is a serious problem.

  4. daveyone1 says:

    Reblogged this on World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum..

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