News of Antonin Scalia’s sudden death transported me back to a memorable afternoon I spent with him in the quiet solitude of his chambers at the Supreme Court.
I was reporting a biography of Justice Clarence Thomas, his conservative colleague, and had written to Scalia requesting an interview. To my surprise, he agreed, and our subsequent exchange revealed as much about the man who died Saturday at the age of 79 as it did about my subject.
The encounter came during the court’s 2002-2003 term, a time when Scalia’s reputation for withering cross-examination of attorneys in oral arguments was already legendary, but well before he’d tarnished it with pointed jabs at colleagues in acid dissents read aloud from the bench, the notoriety of recent years.
Still, I was nervous as I waited in his antechamber at the appointed hour. After a few minutes, Scalia’s secretary pointed to the door of his chamber and signaled for me to go in.
Scalia rose from behind a large wooden desk to the left of the door and came around to greet me. I had been in Thomas’ chambers, a cozy room decorated with photographs and paintings that held meaning for the court’s lone black jurist.
Scalia’s chamber was much larger, darkly paneled and softly lit, and seemed too big for the small man who crossed the room.
We sat opposite one another in two wing-backed chairs, a coffee table between us, and began talking. Scalia spoke barely above a whisper, so softly that I found myself leaning forward to hear him. So softly, in fact, that I grew alarmed that the vastness of the room was swallowing up his words before they reached my recorder on the table between us.
As a Washington correspondent, I had long been fascinated by the sharp contrasts between the public and private faces of political figures. As everyone knows, Thomas says nothing from the bench in oral arguments and the subject of his silence is the source of endless speculation and reporting.
From my biographical work, however, I learned that the private Thomas was gregarious and outgoing, a man who filled the room with his laughter, storytelling and obvious affinity for other people. It was one of the puzzles I tackled in my book about him.
Here in front of me, by contrast, was a man who played the public bully but seemed so meek and soft-spoken in private that he melted into the room.
I have no idea if he was always like this with an audience of only one, but I knew enough then that it was the public persona that mattered to him the most. A Supreme Court justice has two avenues for unrestrained commentary – what is said from the bench and what is written in opinions and dissents.
From the beginning, Scalia made the most of both. Indeed, before Scalia came on the bench, Supreme Court oral arguments were much tamer affairs, and he alone fostered the lively exchanges that have now become the norm.
As we talked that afternoon, Scalia told me that when he first came to the Supreme Court in 1986, he routinely lobbied the other justices on the court to adopt his point of view, and that he did so with Thomas when he arrived in 1991.
After a while, he said, he gave up. It was useless, he told me, because the truth of the Supreme Court was that each justice was independent, immune not only to the pressures of the Congress and the public, but also of each other.
It was also clear to me from our conversation that Scalia intended to leave the Supreme Court feet-first.
Towards the end of the interview, I asked him how long he intended to stick around. He said that he liked his job and noted that there were few incentives to leave. The pay was good, the hours manageable and no one could force him to go because, well, under the Constitution Supreme Court positions are lifetime appointments.
And then, almost as an afterthought, he asked me if I’d recalled a famous cartoon of two men walking down the street and passing some once-famous person who’d retired.
In Scalia’s retelling, the first man turns to the second and asks, “Who was that?”
The second man says, “I don’t know. He used to be somebody.”
On that memorable afternoon, it was clear to me that Scalia never wanted to be that somebody.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Ken Foskett is Senior Editor/Investigations at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His biography of Justice Thomas, “Judging Thomas: the Life and Times of Clarence Thomas,” was published in 2004.