In this Oct. 20, 2015 file photo, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. White House lawyers are scouring a life’s worth of information about President Barack Obama’s potential picks for the Supreme Court, ranging from the mundane to the intensely personal. In replacing the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the president could alter the balance of the court for decades, but only if he can get his nominee through Republicans in the Senate. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)
While the late U.S. Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was regarded as a great legal mind among conservatives, it would seem that in his chambers, in the courtroom, and in the District, he had little empathy or contact with Blacks.
Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1987 by President Reagan and died on Feb. 13. He was a close ideological colleague of fellow Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, the only Black on the high court. However, research conducted by the AFRO suggests that Scalia, during his decades of service on the Supreme Court, didn’t hire one Black clerk.
Numerous media outlets reported that Scalia’s law clerks served as pallbearers at the public viewing of the body on Feb. 19 in the U.S. Supreme Court Building and many outlets showed images of a Black man performing those duties. However, a public information specialist of the Supreme Court told the AFRO that the reports were incorrect. “The officers of the U.S. Supreme Court police force served as pallbearers ,” said Annie Strong, a public information office employee, responding to an AFRO email inquiry.
When asked whether Scalia had any Blacks clerking for him at any time, Strong responded by saying “Justice Scalia had more than 100 law clerks during his tenure on the court. The court does not maintain the other records you seek,” she said.
Supreme Court justices and other judges in the federal judiciary are not bound by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlaws discrimination in employment based on race. Supreme Court law clerks generally come from Ivy League and well-recognized law schools throughout the nation and have already clerked for a year for a well-respected federal judge.
The paucity of Black law clerks isn’t the only area in Scalia’s life that lacks contact with Black Americans. “It seemed that while on the Court, Scalia went out of his way not to vote in the best interests of Black people or women period,” said Dr. E. Faye Williams, an attorney, and president and CEO of the National Congress of Black Women. “A good example is his vote on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 .”
In the landmark case of Shelby County vs. Holder in 2013, Scalia joined the 5-4 majority that struck down two key provisions of the VRA that provided federal oversight to prevent state discrimination relating to election laws. Williams said that Scalia’s vote in the Shelby case showed his insensitivity toward Blacks. “It was very clear that this law was constitutional and he voted against it,” Williams said. “I am sorry he passed and I feel for his family, but I am a harsh judge of him as a Supreme Court justice.”
However, Ralph Chittams Sr., the Black senior vice chairman of the D.C. Republican Party, said Scalia was a “trailblazing legal scholar and jurist.”
“Without a doubt, Scalia was one of the most brilliant minds to sit on the court,” Chittams told the AFRO. “He was one of the finest conservative scholars on the court.”
Chittams said that Scalia was right in the Shelby decision. “The opinion regarding that decision simply said that the wording of the sections needed to be revised to reflect current circumstances,” he said. “Scalia voted to have the Congress to revisit and revise the Voting Rights Act.”
Johnny Barnes is the retired executive director of the District’s ACLU office. He told the AFRO that Scalia attended a few banquets that the national ACLU, generally regarded as a progressive legal advocacy group, held in the District. “He was on the stage at those banquets,” Barnes said. “He was a good friend of Nadine Strossen, who was the president and CEO of the national ACLU at that time.”
Barnes said that while Scalia was brilliant, his ideas on civil rights weren’t progressive. “When Scalia wrote a decision on mostly any issue, he didn’t take into account modern times,” he said. “He didn’t see the Constitution as a living, breathing document but viewed it in the past.”