President Obama has been criticized for not attending Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral, especially by conservatives. While the Obamas aren’t attending the funeral, they did go pay their respects at the Great Hall of the Supreme Court where Scalia’s body was lying in repose. Much of the criticism is coming from the right, probably still smarting at a bad hand that’s been dealt to them politically. They also know the liberals and progressives are trying hard to hold a somber face together at the demise of Justice Scalia, but are secretly dancing inside. Anyway you slice it, regardless if President Obama can get a new Supreme Court Justice on the bench before his term is over, the gods are smiling on the Democratic Party.
Politics aside, what is the proper etiquette for funeral attendance? Besides close friends and family, whose funeral should one attend and why? Just like weddings, people attend funerals for all sorts of reasons, but not always for the right ones. Many feel compelled to attend a funeral not only to show respect for the deceased but also out of obligation. If the CEO of your company dies and one is within a certain rank in management, one might feel compelled to go even if they hardly knew the CEO or thoroughly disliked him, especially if everyone else who hold you rank and higher are going. Most people just grit their teeth and get on with it. You don’t want to be singled out as the guy who didn’t attend the boss’s funeral.
Specifically in the case of Scalia, Obama being in the more senior position on the food chain so the choice to go or not is entirely up to him. He chose to not go and whatever his reasons are, it is wholly appropriate. Obama didn’t appoint Scalia to the Court, while Obama may have respected Scalia and the position he holds, it is unclear if that respect was reciprocated. While the president appoints Supreme Court justice candidates and the Senate confirms them, the president is not their immediate superior. Supreme Court justices do not report directly to the president of the United States. In fact, it’s best for the president of the United States to not be seen as being too chummy with Supreme Court Justices. So all the uproar about Obama not attending Scalia’s funeral is just that, uproar to score political points from the right, an uproar without any substance.
That the former Justice Scalia was not a very likable person outside of his family and immediate legal circle isn’t lost on people either. Political and media pundits are trying to dance around this point but the fact remains, unless you shared Scalia’s views or you were another fellow jurist and can bounce off legal ideas with him, he was not a likable guy. Compare him with Chief Justice John G. Roberts, also very conservative in his views, also a fellow Catholic, but he is generally likable by most people who know him. Just reading back court transcripts when Scalia is doing the questioning makes one cringe, his tone is often confrontational, at times combative and even condescending (comparing health insurance to “broccoli” comes to mind). The majority of the people who turned out for his funeral today at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. probably barely knew the guy as it is the case with funerals of prominent persons. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, all the people lamenting the loss of a great jurist didn’t know the justice well, if at all. They heap praises on him because the justice happens to pander to their political view, which is the right of crazy.
Supreme Court Justices aren’t exactly public figures but they are visible to the public more so than any other judges because there are only 9 of them and their names are attached to the decisions they vote on for posterity. Supreme Court Justices aren’t elected officials, they are appointed officials. They do not hold elected public office but they are civil servants to some degree. Some justices such as Sonia Sotomayor do outreach programs in minority communities but they rarely speak about the decisions or their views on sensitive legal subjects until after they’ve left the bench. We only know of them through the legal decisions they write while they are serving on the nation’s highest court and the occasional public speeches. From those decisions we the public judge their character, their political persuasions and integrity. And it is in this area Justice Scalia failed to impress the public. It’s not that he’s a conservative justice, there were lots of those throughout the history of the court, but that he’s ultra-conservative to the point where his decisions instead of preserving people’s rights, he diminished them or took them away. He derided members of the LGBTQ community by saying :“It’s not up to the courts to invent new minorities that get special protections.” In the Fisher vs. University of Texas case, he argued against affirmative action:
“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well,” he said. “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them. I’m just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer. Maybe it ought to have fewer.”
The courts trying to slowly dismantle affirmative action is relegating minorities to “lesser schools” and instead of seeing this as a problem, Justice Scalia thinks that’s the way it should be, especially if they can’t keep up fast-track schools. It’s not up to higher learning institutions to accommodate the needs of the students but the other way around. Students of color routinely feel ostracized and marginalized in advanced learning institutions so it is very important that every law created to support students of color needs to be preserved and not taken away.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which allowed 9 states, mostly in the South to change voting laws without advance federal approval. Justice Scalia voted with the majority, Chief Justice Roberts decision stated:
“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
This states which had voter identification laws blocked as being unconstitutional can have those laws immediately go into effect. Placing additional voting restrictions (with the false premise of stemming voter fraud) always harms minorities and the underprivileged. Creating additional bureaucracy just for people to go to the polls and vote will deter people who are vulnerable, such as the elderly who are physically impaired or infirm, where getting out of the house requires a lot of planning. It will discourage people who do not have the luxury of taking time off work to sort out ‘voting’ paperwork from going to the polls and these are usually minorities and women. The mere fact that voting restriction (poll tax, literacy tests) was created in the South post Civil War with the single purpose of keeping black people from going to the polls should deter all justices from voting to dilute the Voting Rights Act.
It’s not so much that Justice Scalia leans right politically, many justices do, but that he cannot separate his devout Catholic beliefs combined his purist view of the constitution from permeating his decisions (which are final, there are no more appeals after the Supreme Court rules) and how he views the law is a big problem. His comment about “invent”[ing] new minorities just so they can get special protections is indicative of that. He doesn’t feel that members of the LGBTQ community are deserving of special protection under the law when since the dawn of man this group of individuals have been the most marginalized and unprotected. I won’t even get into his appalling record of allowing women’s right to choose or anything to do with a woman that’s outside of her home.
That a man who lived to be 79 but his views are nearly unchanged from since he was 17 is a sign of stunted self-actualization. Most speak of this as a strength or a personality quirk, but it’s not, it shows a deliberate lack of growth. Even devout Catholics change their views on issues that the church is usually implacable about, regardless if the church changed its views or not. The fact that Scalia had the privilege to walk around his whole entire adult life acting as though he’s still the head boy at a Catholic private school without consequences and this same person got to sit on the bench of one of the most hallowed institutions in the country should concern everyone.
Of course he was brilliant jurist, with a sharp mind for legal matters. His chosen profession would dictate that. He is part of a rare and privileged group of men and four women who had the final say on important matters which determine the history of our country and the lives of ordinary Americans. The people whom belong to this group, along with interpreting the Constitution (which is very vague and can be open to any sort of interpretation on grey areas) should handle that privilege with care and consideration. And this is where Justice Antonin Scalia has failed in his duty.
As for proper funeral etiquette. I wouldn’t want anyone at my funeral who didn’t like me but feel obligated to attend. Obama is still the president and he can do what he damn well pleases. It’s not as though Obama skipped the funeral of previous presidents or other major heads of state. To attend the funeral of a man you hardly knew and didn’t like smacks of hypocrisy. Besides, the president has more important business to attend to, like appointing Scalia’s successor.