by Bob Baker
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia came to address a national convention of Australian lawyers. I had requested a top constitutional lawyer and was delighted when Washington headquarters at the U.S. Information Agency in 1986 told me Justice Scalia would spend a week on the program I had suggested. He gave a brilliant exposition on the origins of the American Constitution at the big lawyers convention. His close interpretation of how the Constitution should be read in contemporary America was impressive. The several hundred lawyers loudly applauded his scholarly, but lively lecture.
I had arranged for him to speak also with smaller groups including an informal luncheon address to Sydney’s High Court judges. The High Court Chief Justice was especially proud of their long court pedigree, illustrated in their private chambers by large portraits of all the Chief Justices. Justice Scalia also met informally in board rooms with leading Sydney lawyers and in the New South Wales Parliament House with top political figures, talking about U.S. constitutional issues. I got new insights into Aussie life and politics by being with him at all those meetings.
Our constitutional law faced many problems similar to those in Australia, thanks in part to our shared heritage of English common law and modern social developments.
His lectures were first rate, as might be expected from a former Columbia law professor and Supreme Court judge. Among the many judges I worked with across the years, he was the most brilliant and persuasive, with an orderly, quick mind, full of apposite parallels and funny, warm asides, a perfect speaker on the U.S. Constitution. I did not always share his opinions but enjoyed his ebullient personality and wit a lot.
I accompanied him around Sydney several days, then flew with him to Brisbane, Queensland, where he addressed judicial and academic groups in the state capital. Queensland is Australia’s “Deep North” famous for its sugar cane, tropical fruits, rainforests, endless golden beaches, hot, humid weather, occasional typhoons, astonishingly baroque politics, and magnificent Barrier Reef. Queensland University very impressively adapted Oxford architecture in brick, but with more spacious grounds than in England. Justice Scalia spoke to both professors and students in lectures and lively discussions.
After his meetings with local judicial and political figures, we set off in a rented car for an informal tour of the best of Queensland. The Justice is not only a brilliant law academic. He is an astute, combative defender of narrow interpretations of the Constitution.
He is also a bright, funny, conversationalist with a puckish sense of humor. He has strongly held personal and political/philosophical values. He lives out his beliefs.
It was delightful to talk with him about history and economics. He also talked well about literature and music. Almost nothing escaped his interest. He was the most stimulating conversationalist I had met outside London.
After our first day of driving, he asked if he could not try his hand at driving on the left hand side of the road. I hate driving, so although it seemed adventurous, I agreed. It was surprising to see how quickly he picked it up with just a few hair-raising incidents. It was especially chilling when we came out of roundabouts when he reverted to the American side of the road until an avoided head-on sent him swerving back to the lane where we belonged.
He drove just as he spoke, quickly and aggressively. Going up a two lane mountain road we were blocked behind by slow moving mom and pop in a beat up old van. Because the road twisted, you could not see more than thirty feet past them, if that. The outer lane edge faced a drop off, of about a hundred feet. There was no guard rail. After a few minutes plodding up behind the van, Scalia floored it and swung out onto the downhill lane to pass. It was the grace of God nobody was coming down at that moment. On the other hand, when we were late for his return flight, another side of his character came up.
We had spent half a day touring a temperate rain forest on a little dirt track in a sort of golf buggy. But we forgot the time. When I finally noticed we were late, he drove bumping as fast as it would go bucking over potholes so he could catch a barge across the river below. If we missed it, he would miss his aircraft takeoff and then his flight back to Washington. When we got to the barge landing with just a bit to spare, he grabbed his bag from the back of the buggy and said, “Where’s your bag?” It was gone. It had bumped off the back. I told him to catch his barge and I would find my way back myself later. He refused, insisted I jump into the buggy and drove us back up the trail to find my bag. About five minutes out, an Aussie driving down hailed us with my bag, found in the middle of the trail. That was typical of their kindness and helpfulness. He drove back like the wind and we just made the barge and his flight. We had spent seven great days together. I learned lots about America’s constitution.
As he left Sydney, he said there were few men he had spent so much time talking on such a wide range of subjects. He said he enjoyed working with me and that he had enjoyed our time together. I returned the compliment sincerely, a great guy. As we shook hands he said, “Call me Nino.” I did not do that as I respected his role so much, but I was very pleased to be asked. I did not have time back in Washington to take up his invitation to lunch, but wish I had.
Although I did not agree with some of his judicial decisions, it was heartening to see the full force of a bright intellect and a good heart on our country’s most important court.
I had to smile when he replied to my praise for his grand position in the world. He said being on the Supreme Court was a “high honor”, then he added a little ruefully, “ But mine is just one of nine votes”. But what a vote!