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Supreme Court pays tribute to Antonin Scalia

February 22, 2016 at 7:21 PM EDT
The Supreme Court returned to the bench Monday for the first time since Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. Chief Justice John Roberts paid tribute to the eloquent and often confrontational jurist, describing him as “our man for all seasons.” Gwen Ifill sits down with Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal to discuss the atmosphere of the Court and the debate over Scalia’s successor.
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GWEN IFILL: But, first, the Supreme Court returned to the bench today, absent Justice Antonin Scalia.

In a tribute read from the bench, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that Scalia, who passed a way a little over a week ago, authored 282 majority opinions for the court.

“He was also known, on occasion, to dissent. We remember his incisive intellect, his agile wit, and his captivating prose. But we cannot forget his irrepressible spirit. He was our man for all seasons, and we shall miss him beyond measure.”

Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal” was in the courtroom today, and she joins me now.

It was a somber mood in that courtroom, in that chamber.

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: It was. It was, Gwen.

It was subdued. And I think, throughout the court — I can’t speak for everyone who works within the court — but it was somber, but I think there also was a sense of fatigue, because it was a very emotional week for everyone. Relationships among the justices are long and good. And the relationships between justices and court employees are also close.

If you walk through the court building after hours, there is a sense of real family. They consider it a family-type institution. I thought the chief justice hit the right note inside the courtroom. He was respectful of Justice Scalia’s background, education, family and also had a few little light notes in there.

GWEN IFILL: That little comment about the dissents.

MARCIA COYLE: Occasionally in dissent to remind us of how he was on and off the bench.

GWEN IFILL: He also mentioned that he only argued one case before the court and won it, so he had a perfect record.

MARCIA COYLE: Exactly. Exactly.

So — but it was very much business as usual when the court took up two cases this morning. There were just, I think, as many questions from those justices who typically question, but what was really missing was kind of the spark, the color that Justice Scalia brought to his own questions.

GWEN IFILL: Well, as the court was having their discussions about — first of all, explain briefly what those two cases were.

MARCIA COYLE: Sure.

Ironically, these cases seemed tailor-made for Justice Scalia. The first one involved interpreting a federal law that mandates that a preference be given to veteran-owned small businesses by the Department of Veterans Affairs when it awards contracts. And so the language of the statute, Justice Scalia was a bear about textualism. If the words are clear, that ends the discussion.

And I had a feeling almost that Justice Kagan was channeling her inner Scalia during the arguments as she focused on the words of the statute and pressed the government’s lawyer, aren’t you following it? It seems pretty clear to me that the statute, when it uses the word shall means shall.

The second case was a Fourth Amendment case. And he had written often in Fourth Amendment cases, very protective of the privacy of individuals in their person, their homes and their documents. And this case involved an illegal stop of someone by a police officer who then did an arrest warrant check, found there was an arrest warrant, arrested the person he stopped, and searched him.

And the question was whether the evidence that he found of drugs could be suppressed because the initial stop was illegal, there was no reasonable suspicion. So, both cases really played, I think, to Justice Scalia’s interests.

GWEN IFILL: Yes. So, while the justices were going about business of court, right across the street, in Congress, they were beginning what you have lived through before and covered before, which is the motions you go through to actually fill that vacancy.

And we saw members of the Senate go to the floor and praise Justice Scalia, but also begin to lay the groundwork for the drama that is going to begin.

MARCIA COYLE: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Does any of that seep into the court building itself, any of that political drama?

MARCIA COYLE: Not really.

I think the justices and the employees are very aware of what’s going on. I think even some of them have a feeling that they would like to see this get on, get done with. But, no, they’re really unaffected by the politics. The court does its work, and today did its work as it has always done, whether it’s with eight — nine justices, eight justices, or seven justices, and will continue to work through the end of the term.

GWEN IFILL: The White House put out a photograph this week of the president walking down the Colonnade at the White House carrying a great, big briefcase folder, so clearly to show that somebody is hard at work.

But both sides have done an interesting thing and over the years. And that is to say, this president, whoever he is, if it’s an election year, shouldn’t have a say in this. And today emerged a video of Joe Biden, who is now the vice president, of course, at the time the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, saying the same thing in 1992.

(CROSSTALK)

GWEN IFILL: A little different.

MARCIA COYLE: 1992. Yes, 1992, there was no vacancy. It was an election year.

So, I would imagine — I’m not in Vice President Biden’s head, but I imagine there was a concern that there might be a vacancy. It was June. And in June, politicians’ eyes turn to the Supreme Court. They always wonder if there’s going to be retirements, resignations.

This, to me is typical partisan back-and-forth and is probably not all that helpful. But there have been many discussions over the years on how to improve the confirmation process. This is one that he was offering in ’92, no election year confirmations. There have been others, you know, term limits, and we’re going to continue to see this.

GWEN IFILL: Well, there’s one more confirmation battle for you to cover there, Marcia.

MARCIA COYLE: We will see, won’t we?

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Marcia Coyle of “National Law Journal,” thank you.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Gwen.

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