Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Scalia Remembered: An Afternoon With The Justice

As the Associate Executive Director of the Philadelphia Bar Association for nearly 30 years I had the privilege of meeting many justices of the United States Supreme Court.
New Jersey's own Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. was witty and engaging as he reminisced about South Jersey landmarks. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was down to earth as she remembered friends and associates in Philadelphia. Trenton native Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. talked about his allegiance to the Philadelphia Phillies and his love of baseball. Justices William Rehnquist, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were less approachable and more reserved.
But I'll never forget my afternoon with Justice Antonin Scalia who came to Philadelphia to address the members of the bar association in 2004.
To begin with, Justice Scalia's appearance was unprecedented and controversial. Unprecedented because the mostly liberal Philadelphia Bar Association was not in the habit of welcoming conservatives. Justice O'Connor was about as far to the right as they were willing to venture. And controversial because more than a few members of the association threatened not to attend the luncheon hosting Justice Scalia while a few others said they would join with like-minded groups and individuals to protest Scalia's appearance.
And then there was the matter of media coverage which I was responsible for. Justice Scalia's representative reiterated the Justice's strong objection to any live radio or TV coverage of his remarks. TV cameras and still photography on the floor of the ballroom would be permitted only during a brief proscribed period as Scalia accepted applause and delivered the opening portions of his address. Then, the cameras would have to retreat to the ballroom balcony.
Justice Scalia was always concerned that segments of his remarks would be taken out of context and used to distort his message -- something that happen much too often in his view. Also, he didn't want a bunch of flash cameras popping as he was speaking.
Once the ground rules were clear we were ready to move ahead with the event and (despite threats and protestations) we were facing a complete sellout in one of the biggest venues in the city. On the morning of the luncheon, I was assigned to stay alongside Justice Scalia and make sure all his needs were met. I didn't know quite how to react but when we were introduced and Justice Scalia heard the sound of my surname there was an immediate level of comfort.
I stayed with Justice Scalia during an extended pre-luncheon reception where a receiving line had to be set up to accommodate all those who wanted to meet him, shake his hand and maybe (if they were lucky enough) have their picture taken with him. Was I surprised that many of those who had protested his appearance patiently waited in line and dutifully shook his hand, chatting and smiling. Not really. The stature and importance of the man and the office outweighed all else and Scalia was respected as a brilliant jurist regardless of the import of his opinions, both formal and otherwise.
But, here's the thing: Justice Scalia was kind, patient, attentive and engaging with everyone who came through the receiving line. I stood behind him and heard every word he spoke to the lawyers and judges who paid their respects. He was unfailingly pleasant. And he was refreshingly familiar -- like someone you'd meet in the working class, melting pot neighborhood of Elmhust, Queens where he grew up.
I marveled at Justice Scalia's stamina, reminding myself that he still had to sit at the luncheon head table, endure tedious preliminary presentations and then deliver the keynote address. I quietly asked him if there was anything he needed. He quietly leaned back and whispered: "How about a glass of vino?" I quickly arranged for a glass of red wine to be set up on a small table alongside me. Whenever there was a bit of a break in the line, Scalia reached back to take a few sips. He was very grateful.
Then, it was time for the luncheon. More than 500 people were waiting in the ballroom and we knew it would take forever if we tried to walk the Justice through the room and up to the head table. "Justice Scalia," I said "we plan to take you into the ballroom through the kitchen and directly on to the stage, if that's OK."
"Oh, I'd love that, " he answered. "Let's go."
I had to rush to keep up with Scalia as we briskly moved through service corridors and into what hoteliers call "the back of the house." Here. Justice Scalia was in his element as he greeted and chatted with wait staff, cooks, service captains, maintenance people and all the others who made the operation click.He seemed like he could join any one of them and work alongside them in an instant.
Then, it was onto the stage as the entire audience came to its feet and Justice Scalia, responding to the applause with a big smile, assumed the role that destiny seemed to have proscribed for him.
When Scalia eventually rose to speak there was a hush in the room. The city's busiest, most powerful people put aside their own business and remained unfailingly attentive to his every word. He challenged them. He made them think. And maybe he sent some of them back to their offices with new doubts about old assumptions and preconceptions.
That was my hope, anyway.
As U. S. Marshalls whisked Scalia out of the hotel and into a waiting car I caught one last glimpse of him, winking and waving goodbye.

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