The late Justice Scalia was not fond of eulogies, which he scorned as praising the departed “when we should be giving thanks for God’s inexplicable mercy for a sinner.” In keeping with his wishes, there were no eulogies at Saturday’s traditional Roman Catholic funeral mass at the ornate Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
There was a greater gift to celebrate Scalia, an admired family man in addition to the dominant conservative intellect for the last 30 years on the Supreme Court. His son, Father Paul Scalia, led the mass with somber precision and delivered a homily that artfully recognized his father’s professional accomplishments while giving credit where in their shared Catholic faith they believe credit is due to “what God did for Dad, how he blessed him.”
Those words began Father Scalia’s remarkably personal remembrance of “the father God gave us for the great adventure of family life.” There were 55 years of marriage to a woman he loved, “who matched him at every step and could even hold him accountable,” an observation that brought knowing laughter from the 4000 friends and family assembled in the sanctuary who know and admire Maureen Scalia.
“He loved the clarity and coherence of his faith,” Father Scalia continued, and he treasured the church’s ceremonies, though one Saturday afternoon he scolded his son for having heard confession that day. “The Roman collar was not a shield against his criticism,” Scalia declared. “It was not that I had heard confession. He had found himself in my confession line and he quickly departed it.
“Like heck am I confessing to you,” Justice Scalia told Father Scalia. “The feeling was mutual,” the younger Scalia recounted with a smile.
Father Scalia looks strikingly like his father, and his devotion to the faith they shared is but one example of Scalia’s impact on his family. “To be sure, he forgot our names at times or mixed us up, but there were nine of us,” Father Scalia said. “He gave us one another, the greatest wealth that parents can bestow.”
Among the notables attending the mass were Vice President Biden, former Vice President Cheney, former Speakers Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich, and all eight surviving Justices. Cardinal Wuerel welcomed the guests and got a laugh when he nodded to the family and said, “In keeping with your desire to have a simple parish family mass,” that he would confine himself to just a few words.
Among the lay people who did readings from the pulpit was Justice Clarence Thomas, who after 25 years on the court remains something of a mystery figure as well as a cautionary tale for what lies ahead as President Obama attempts to fill the vacancy caused by Scalia’s abrupt death.
There was much anticipation about Thomas speaking, since he hasn’t asked a question in 10 years in oral arguments, and his voice is not familiar. Sounding strong and distinguished, Thomas said he would read from a letter from Saint Paul to the Romans, and that’s what he did. That’s all he did. There was nothing personal, nothing that could be called a eulogy.
New York Times reporter Peter Baker spotted Biden shaking Thomas’s hand before they were seated in the church, tweeting that there was a lot of history between these two. Biden chaired the Senate hearings that preceded Thomas’s contentious confirmation with just 52 votes in the Democratic controlled senate in 1991.
Obama paid his respects to the Scalia family Friday afternoon as the justice lay in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. Then Obama turned his attention to the task at hand, finding a replacement. The White House arranged a photo op late Friday showing Obama walking from the oval office to the residence carrying a bulging binder of information about potential nominees.
It’s tempting to ask what Scalia would think of his Republican allies who jumped out immediately after his death to declare that no justice would even be considered on Obama’s watch. There are some cracks in that wall of opposition, and from everything we know about Justice Scalia and his fierce devotion to his principles, he would never shrink from a fight.
At a White House Correspondents dinner seven years ago, Scalia confided to Obama advisor David Axelrod, “I have no illusions that your man will send us someone who shares my orientation. But I hope he sends us someone smart.” Justice Souter, a George H.W. Bush appointee, had just retired. Writing about the encounter on CNN, Axelrod quoted Scalia saying, “I hope he sends us Elena Kagan.”
They were friends and former colleagues at the University of Chicago Law School, and Scalia had watched her argue cases before the court as Obama’s Solicitor General. Kagan joined the court a year later when Obama had a second vacancy to fill with the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. Scalia regularly sparred with Kagan. He also took her on hunting trips so she could better understand where he was coming from on guns.
Scalia’s friendships across the political divide are legion, and his gregarious nature will be missed. He could also be infuriating because he believed so intently in the rightness of whatever principle he championed, but he was never afraid of a fight. Eulogies are for yesterday, and as much as Scalia strove to preserve the traditions and values of yesterday, he was always ready for the next fight. He was the happy warrior.