Was Scalia Spooky?

Antonin Scalia’s views on snooping, in the 1970s and later

The Globe and Mail‘s Sean Fine is as good a reporter as he is a bad analyst. Both of his qualities ― an impressive ability to find and tell a great story, and an unthinking belief in simplistic ideological classification of judges ― are on full display in his latest article, a fascinating story of how Antonin Scalia, then a professor at the University of Chicago, was commissioned to produce a report on “United States Intelligence Law” for the McDonald Commission, which investigated the RCMP’s espionage activities and whose eventual recommendations led to the creation of CSIS. Mr. Fine contrasts “[t]he report’s scrupulously impartial (for the most part) author” with the judge that he would become; the former, sensitive to privacy rights if also keen to ensure that intelligence agencies can operate effectively; the latter, in Mr. Fine’s telling, brazenly unconcerned with them, and condoning “torture in some circumstances”. But things are more complicated than Mr. Fine lets on.

Before I get to that, I’ll note little anecdote that Mr. Fine passes over, perhaps because this is a bit too inside-baseball for the Globe‘s readers. Mr. Fine explains that it was Peter Russel, who was the director of research for the McDonald Commission, who recommended then-professor Scalia’s hiring ― on the advice of Edward Levi (Scalia’s boss as Attorney-General in Gerald Ford’s administration) and Herbert Wechsler (a distinguished scholar, notably of the “neutral principles” fame). What Mr. Fine does not mention is that prof. Russel’s recommendation (a scan of which is included in the article) noted that Levi and Wechsler ranked Scalia ahead of none other than Robert Bork. (Prof. Russell, by the way, seems to have had a bit of an issue with names in that memo, referring to “Anthony” Scalia and “Richard” Bork.) Ironically, the Reagan administration would later rank Scalia and Bork in the same order when it came to making their appointments to the Supreme Court. Scalia was nominated in 1986, and confirmed by the Senate on a 98-0 vote; Bork was nominated in 1987 and rejected by the Senate after hearings so bitter that his name became a verb, in which his views and record were arguably distorted out of all recognition by Ted Kennedy and the latest recipient of the Medal of Freedom.

And, to get back to my point, this is a bit what Mr. Fine tries to do with the late Justice Scalia, albeit on a much smaller scale. He makes a point of noting that prof. Russell

would … later be appalled by the justice’s support of originalism – a judicial philosophy in which constitutional rights do not evolve over time, but stay rooted in the vision of the Founding Fathers of the United States. “Originalism is absolute nonsense”,

he quotes prof. Russell as saying. And he refers repeatedly to a “2007 speech” Scalia gave in Ottawa, in which “he was more the suspicious-of-too-many-legal-protections conservative”.  But Justice Scalia’s originalism was neither “nonsense” nor all bad for the protection of privacy rights against over-curious governments.

Prof. Russell, Mr. Fine, and those who think like them ― admittedly, a large contingent in Canada ― might just learn a thing or two from the expanding scholarship documenting the presence of originalism in Canada, and in some cases advocating the expansion of this presence. This scholarship includes (but is not limited to) recent articles by Sébastien Grammond and J. Gareth Morley focusing on the Supreme Court’s opinions on the appointment of Justice Nadon and Senate reform; an as-yet-unpublished paper by Asher Honickman, on federalism; Kerri Froc’s work on women’s rights; and the pair of articles that Benjamin Oliphant and I wrote last year. The first of these, which should come out any day now in the Queen’s Law Journal, shows that contrary to popular belief, the Supreme Court has not squarely rejected originalism, least of all what is arguably the dominant form of originalism now, one focused on the original meaning of constitutional texts (rather than their framers’ intentions or expectations). The second, due to come out in the UBC Law Review later this year, shows that, in fact, the Supreme Court resorts to originalist reasoning in a surprising variety of cases. If Prof. Russell is right that “originalism is absolute nonsense”, then not only has the Supreme Court never renounced it, but in fact large swathes of its jurisprudence (and of that of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council), are nonsensical too.

But more directly relevant to my present topic is our discussion, in the first paper, of the contrast between Justice Scalia’s reasons, for a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court of the United States, in Kyllo v United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001), and Justice Binnie’s reasons for the unanimous Supreme Court of Canada in R v Tessling, 2004 SCC 67, [2004] 3 SCR 432. As we explain (actually, the credit here goes to Mr. Oliphant):

The issue, in both cases, was whether the use of a thermal imaging device by the police amounted to a “search” within the meaning, respectively, of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and section 8 of the Charter. In Kyllo, Justice Scalia … found that because information about what went on within the home ― however collected ― would have been secure from search and seizure at the time the Fourth Amendment was passed, the state cannot now invade that sphere of privacy through the use of new technology.

Justice Binnie, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, disagreed… Justice Binnie rejected the relevance of Kyllo on the basis that it was “predicated on the ‘originalism’ philosophy of Scalia J.,” [61] and because it is not “helpful in the Canadian context to compare the state of technology in 2004 with that which existed at Confederation in 1867, or in 1982 when s. 8 of the Charter was adopted.” [62]

Tessling is an odd hill upon which to make a stand against originalism. Kyllo, which the Court in Tessling refused to follow, did not restrict constitutional meaning to those realities foreseen by the framers, as originalism does according to the “frozen rights” or “dead” constitution caricature frequently encountered in the Canadian literature. It did precisely the opposite. … Indeed, it is not clear to us just what Justice Binnie is actually rejecting in refusing to follow the “originalist” philosophy underlying Kyllo, or in stating that it is unhelpful “to compare the state of technology” in 2004 with what which existed in 1982. The logic of Kyllo was to deny that changes in technology can diminish the scope of constitutional protection over time; there was no “comparison” of technologies, because changes in technology were irrelevant to the interpretive question of what was protected. (25-26; a paragraph break and a reference removed)

We conclude that

In the ultimate result, and despite frequent and nebulous assertions that the Charter must be read in a “large,” “liberal,” and “generous,” manner, Justice Scalia’s originalist philosophy unquestionably resulted in a more general and robust protection for personal privacy than Justice Binnie’s “purposive” approach to interpreting section 8 of the Charter. (27)

Of course, this is not to say that Justice Scalia was always right, on privacy issues or on anything else. Indeed, this does not even prove that originalism is the better approach to constitutional interpretation than whatever it is that the Supreme Court of Canada is doing. But both originalism and Justice Scalia’s legacy are more complex than many Canadians, including Mr. Fine, tend to assume. We owe Mr. Fine for telling us a story that shed more light on the late Justice’s oeuvre. It’s too bad he tried to shoehorn that story into a simplistic ideological framework that is as misleading as it is useless.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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