David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Obama and strategist for his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, was seated with Justice Antonin Scalia back in 2008 during the White House Correspondents Dinner. Writing for CNN this morning, Axelrod shared a conversation they had at the dinner about a vacant seat on the Supreme Court.
Scalia was a staunch conservative, but a brilliant legal mind admired by both ends of the political spectrum. For the right, he was a defender of liberty and constitutional protections. For the left, he was a worthy adversary and considered a fair judge. Axelrod’s conversation with Scalia reflected the more human side of the Supreme Court Justice known for his political leanings more than his love of music and wine.
“We bantered about my hometown of Chicago, where [Scalia] had taught law before ascending the bench, he opined on wine and music and generally lived up to his reputation as a man who told and enjoyed a good story,” Axelrod wrote for CNN.
The conversation took a turn from there, when Scalia leaned in and shared a private request with David Axelrod, about the recently open seat on the Supreme Court. It’s here that Scalia’s opinion illustrates just how much he would have disliked the partisan bickering over his own vacant seat on the Court.
“I have no illusions that your man will nominate someone who shares my orientation,” Scalia told Axelrod. “But I hope he sends us someone smart. I hope he sends us Elena Kagan.”
Axelrod was taken aback by the bluntness of the request, but more than that by just who it was that Scalia requested. Elena Kagan was the White House Solicitor General at the time, and while a brilliant legal mind, she was openly liberal and would certainly not find herself on the same side of the issues as Justice Scalia.
Axelrod learned later that he and Kagan were friends, people from two very different backgrounds and political leanings, but they were apparently bound by their intellectualism and their senses of humor. Axelrod claimed that the suggestion was partly due to the fact that Scalia wanted someone who would give him a good fight on issues that he and the future Justice would disagree on. Scalia was a man who loved to argue, and he was good at it.
Unfortunately for Scalia, that nomination didn’t go to Elena Kagan – Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor the first time around. But, the next vacant seat did go to Kagan. The Washington Post reported on how the other justices have remembered Scalia.
“During her confirmation meetings with senators, Kagan had vowed to go hunting to allay their concerns about her cultural awareness on the issue of guns. When she joined the court she asked her friend, Scalia, to take her,” Axelrod wrote. “The two who occasionally shot intellectual darts at each other, became regular – if unlikely – hunting partners.”
Axelrod went on to detail how one of the most liberal justices on the court and one of the most conservative justices on the court found common ground and became close friends. It’s important to note that neither one put aside their differences, they argued ferociously in their legal opinions, but because of their shared intellectual rigor and their shared experiences as lifetime appointees on the most powerful court in the nation, found a way to relate to each other.
Justice Scalia didn’t want someone on the court to share his beliefs, he wanted someone who had their own beliefs, and the legal and intellectual acumen to fight for them.
“We have become inured to the animus that characterizes the relationship between our elected officials in these highly partisan times. But members of the court, free from the pressures of running for office, relate to each other in a different way. So much so, that a conservative lion would lobby the President’s adviser for his liberal friend,” Axelrod wrote this morning for CNN.
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