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How Justice Scalia changed my life

Mourning the loss of a conservative hero

The official U.S. Supreme Court photo in 2010, with Justice Antonin Scalia at left.
The official U.S. Supreme Court photo in 2010, with Justice Antonin Scalia at left.Read moreASSOCIATED PRESS

THERE ARE four deaths that have shaken me, with seismic force, to the core. Four that brought tears at the moment I found out about the loss. Only four.

Until Saturday, at 6:15 p.m., there were only three.

The first was when my father died after a yearlong death match with lung cancer.

The second was when Pope John Paul II passed when his failing body could no longer be sustained by his powerful spirit.

The third was when my mother passed away, leaving me, at 52, an orphan.

And the fourth came on a bone-chilling Saturday at twilight, when I learned that Justice Antonin Scalia had died in his sleep.

The deaths of my parents had the most obvious, personal impact. They were the pole stars of my life, one cerebral and the other emotional. Their deaths changed me, forever.

But the pope's passing was almost as monumental, because he had redefined my relationship with my baptismal faith, turning me from a willing but passive foot soldier into a Catholic who passionately embraced the church's teachings with evangelical fervor. He, among all influences, taught me that abortion is murder.

Antonin Scalia had a different but no less powerful impact on my life. I was in law school when President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the bench, and spent the next three decades absorbing his brilliant and revolutionary theories of the Constitution. Like the passive Catholic I'd been before John Paul II, I was unsure of how to interpret the Founders' great philosophical compromise in my legal life.

Scalia changed that, in dramatic fashion. His brand of originalism, one which rejected "living document" fads that seemed to adapt to whatever social evolution got the most traction (most recently and unfortunately seen in the legalization of gay marriage), taught me how dangerous it is when judges replace their own esoteric views of due process and equal protection for the men who wisely created a bedrock document. "Living documents" gave us legalized abortion, racial quotas, same-sex unions, and the demonization of public prayer.

Many critics of Scalia, some in respectful terms and some in the gutter-level language of trailer-park treatise, said he was trying to stop forward motion. But as the justice himself once famously said, "Movement is not necessarily progress." He went on to shatter that old shibboleth of following your conscience by saying that it was important "not just to be zealous in the pursuit of your ideals, but to be sure that your ideals are the right ones. That is perhaps the hardest part of being a good human being: Good intentions are not enough. Being a good person begins with being a wise person. Then, when you follow your conscience, will you be headed in the right direction."

It was that willingness to attack, head-on, the anesthetizing effect of moral relativism that enraged his critics. How dare he, they thought, tell us how to live our lives? Who is he, almighty in those black robes, to dictate behavior? Where is his tolerance?

And Scalia came back with that pragmatic genius and said that society had a right to dictate certain standards of morality, and this manufactured acceptance of everything in the name of "compassion" was touchy-feely nonsense having nothing to do with the Constitution. Just because Bruce wants to be called Caitlyn, Cecile wants babies to be called fetuses, and Jim Kenney wants to take the Mummers out of the Mummers Parade doesn't mean that the Constitution supports them.

The liberals hated Scalia for that. They hated having the emperor's clothes ripped off and shoved in the trash bin of modern progressive history. They hated being told that sometimes, following a flawed conscience was just as bad as having none at all. And we, on the right, loved him with equal passion.

As iconic as he was in his profession and in public, he was extremely humble in private. I met him only twice, briefly, but I will never forget his spirited eyes, his very un-Justice-like smile and his willingness to speak a few words of Italian. That was another thing that made me adore the man: He elevated my mother's people, and my own identity as an Italian woman, to exalted heights. As my friend Gabriella said, he showed the country we weren't all about meatballs and mafia guys. He reached the top of the mountain, and took us with him.

In saying this, I know I'm playing into the whole identity politics deal I've often criticized, and it's a legitimate criticism. But the difference is this: I wouldn't vote for him, appoint him or follow him just because he was Italian. The fact that the greatest modern mind on the court was one of my own is simply a serendipitous gift.

Scalia's closest friend on the court was his philosophical antithesis: the very liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I can imagine that her mourning just now is deep, deeper than a stranger could suspect. And that is another measure of Antonin Scalia's greatness: He was loved by those who knew him, and who rejected his view of the law.

In the wake of his death, the praise and regret were mixed with the expected vitriol from starved intellects. It came from both sides, with liberals and conservatives politicizing the death. This is the time that makes me hate partisans, people who lose their humanity in the rush to gain an advantage. They are despicable.

But in the end, they're irrelevant. What matters, and what remains, is the brilliant legacy of Antonin Scalia. I mourn his loss, I celebrate his memory.