THE SUPREME Court looms so large in American life that the public is bound to be curious about the mindset of its nine justices. In that sense, the remarkable interview that Justice Antonin Scalia recently gave to New York Magazine is a must-read. One learns that the iconic conservative jurist writes dissents in a “breezy” style for the benefit of future law students; that he watched “The Sopranos” and loves “Seinfeld”; that he dislikes the State of the Union speech and elected state attorneys general who argue before the court; and even that he likes to have at least one clerk who shares his legal philosophy but has more liberal social views.
What’s also striking, though, is that the flow of information he receives about the world is somewhat limited. Scalia, who argues that The Washington Post is “slanted and often nasty” on “almost any conservative issue,” gets most of his news from talk radio. (“I read newspapers that I think are good newspapers,” he says, “or if they’re not good, at least they don’t make me angry, OK?”) While Scalia is pleased with the force and vibrancy of his own prose, he asserts that the only heroic opinion he’s written was when he declined to recuse himself in a case involving his hunting partner Dick Cheney. He’s suspicious of social media and can’t remember the last party he attended that included substantial numbers of both conservatives and liberals. He has friends who “I know, or very much suspect, are homosexual,” but not one has acknowledged it to him.
Scalia is living in an ideological bubble, but he isn’t alone. The partisan self-sorting that has become all too common in Washington is increasingly evident on the high court. Scalia and frequent allies Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito have spoken at events for the Federalist Society, a conservative legal organization; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been surprisingly frank about her efforts to defend liberal precedents.
Perhaps these justices are acknowledging what the public already knew: that they come to their work with a certain set of biases. But it’s also possible that the more forthright judges are about their own predispositions, the less likely they are to set those predispositions aside in controversial cases. While it’s informative for Americans to know more about how a leading Supreme Court justice thinks, it would be far more reassuring if federal judges stayed above the political fray. Scalia’s unbuttoned remarks were depressing because they paint a picture of a man who long ago closed his mind. He seems not to be the only member of the current court who sees himself more as a gladiator in the nation’s culture wars than an impartial decision maker.