Far too many reporters and pundits collapse law into politics, assuming that the left–right divide between Democratic and Republican appointees neatly explains politically liberal versus politically conservative outcomes at the Supreme Court. The late Justice Antonin Scalia defied such caricatures. His consistent judicial philosophy made him the leading exponent of originalism, textualism, and formalism in American law, and over the course of his three decades on the Court, he changed the terms of judicial debate. Now, as a result, supporters and critics alike start with the plain meaning of the statutory or constitutional text rather than loose appeals to legislative history or policy.
Justice Scalia’s approach was perhaps most striking and counterintuitive in criminal law and procedure. He was known to confess that as a policy matter, he favored vigorous law enforcement and punishment, but as a jurist, he championed a principled understanding of the rule of law. His approach helped to preserve individual liberty, make the law clearer and more consistent and transparent, give citizens better notice, promote democratic accountability, and check prosecutors’ and judges’ power.
Justice Scalia’s animating concerns will remain enduring touchstones of our law: the importance of protecting the roles of legislatures, juries, and the people; ensuring fair notice; and preserving liberty by limiting judicial discretion and prosecutorial power. His criminal jurisprudence is thus a microcosm of a principled judicial approach to law more generally, and he will be greatly missed.
Bibas, Stephanos, "Justice Scalia’s Originalism and Formalism: The Rule of Criminal Law as a Law of Rules" (2016). Faculty Scholarship at Penn Law. 1664.
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