LARAMIE, Wyo. — Passing through Laramie after an unsuccessful antelope hunt, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stopped at the University of Wyoming on Thursday to make an impassioned and humorous case for sticking to the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution.
Appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, Scalia is the longest currently serving Supreme Court justice. He's a leading voice of the court's conservative wing while also standing out for his vivid writing style and willingness to mingle with the public.
Caitlin Wallace, a third-year law student at the University of Wyoming and leader of the Federalist Society on campus, invited Scalia to speak. She said in her introduction that she was shocked to get his letter accepting the invitation, joking that Scalia had a reputation together with Elvis Presley as the two men least likely to accept a speaking engagement.
Scalia, who has mixed previous speaking engagements in Wyoming with fishing trips, said he decided to accept Wallace's invitation because he would be in the area. "I'm happy to be here and the reason I am is because Laramie is not on the way to anywhere, really," he said.
Scalia said he regards himself as "an originalist," meaning he decides cases by looking to the original meaning of the Constitution. He said he deplores the popular notion that the Constitution is a living thing that should be interpreted by judges to meet society's changing needs.
Scalia said he endorses the idea of an "enduring Constitution," which he said sticks to its original meaning just as when people read Shakespeare, they use a glossary to check the original meaning of his words. He said a Constitution that can shift and evolve offers the people no real protection, noting that every country in the world that has a dictator has a great constitution that's roundly ignored.
Scalia also denied his approach always leads to the most conservative decisions. For example, he said he sided with the court majority in ruling that it's constitutional to allow burning of the U.S. flag. "If I were king," he said, "I'd throw that bearded, sandal-wearing weirdo in jail."
And Scalia said he was with the court majority when it ruled that people have a right under the Constitution to confront the witnesses against them, not relying on the previous legal standard the court had set that allowed judges to use third-party statements against defendants in criminal cases if they appeared reliable.
"I ought to be the pin-up of the criminal defense bar," Scalia said.
Failing to stick to the original meaning of the Constitution only invites judges to decide on their own how to warp its meaning to fit their own reading, Scalia said. He said that explains the increasingly bitter contests over confirming Supreme Court justices, because Senators all want one they believe will rule their way on hot-button issues.
"It's crazy, it's like a mini constitutional convention every time we confirm a new Supreme Court justice," Scalia said. He said he was unanimously confirmed with only two senators absent, but likely couldn't get 60 votes today.
Steve Easton, dean of the law school, said he took a class from Scalia when he was a visiting professor at Stanford University in 1981. Easton read a few questions that law students submitted to Scalia.
In response to Wallace's question about the single best piece of advice Scalia would give to law students, he advised them not to waste their time taking "frill courses."
"Professors like certain subjects that they're writing a book on, so they teach a course in that subject," he said, adding that students who take the course get to do the research for the book.
"Because there are so many professors teaching their hobbies, the rudimentary courses are not taught with the frequency necessary for everybody to take them," Scalia said.
"The only time you're going to have an opportunity to study a whole area of the law systematically is in law school," Scalia said. "You should not waste that opportunity. Take the bread and butter courses. Do not take, 'law and women,' do not take 'law and poverty,' do not take 'law and anything,'" he said.