History and Humanity at the Supreme Court
By Maria Katsulos
When Justice Antonin Scalia passed away last week, it was difficult to maintain a human perspective on the event in the heart of Washington, D.C. Immediately, pundits spun outcomes of certain cases now that there could be a liberal majority; Republican presidential candidates hoped that the appointment of the newest Supreme Court Judge would fall to the next president, not to President Obama.
Regardless of what Scalia’s death means for America politically, on a personal level it was an interesting look at how tightly interwoven the D.C. community becomes when a public figure passes away. Apart from the general feeling of respect from citizens of all ideological stripes, Scalia’s public memorial attracted thousands.
Among those thousands were 20 SEGL students, clad in respectful yet warm attire to combat the long line on chilly Friday afternoon. After our first time having classes in the dorms (Advanced French certainly got the long end of the stick, having class at the local Firehook coffee shop), we joined a line stretching from the Supreme Court steps to our home on East Capitol a block away.
The wait – nearly an hour – provided ample time for conversation amongst ourselves, with the faculty who waited with us, and with a George Washington University student who helped alleviate some standardized testing stress after telling us a veritable horror story of applying to 16 separate colleges.
Once we arrived at the Supreme Court, we took very little time to appreciate the architecture, art and history around us – SEGL often takes a trip to Court later in the semester, and we were all fairly focused on the moment at hand. Inside, the memorial struck me as intensely personal. Many of us signed a guestbook emblazoned with the words Family and Friends at the top of each page. Then, we were ushered into the main memorial room, where clerks stood as pallbearers around the American-flag-draped casket. Huge wreaths of flowers, one from the Senate and one from the House of Representatives, stood guard on either side of a painting of Scalia.
After we exited the Court – our experience inside had lasted perhaps 15 minutes but was incredibly sobering for such a short amount of time – we had classes at school and a guest speaker before returning back to the dorms. The sight that greeted us stunned us – mourners stretched from the Supreme Court past our dorms for three more blocks.
As SEGL students tend to be extremely curious, the short break we had between returning home and dinner presented a perfect opportunity to flex some journalistic muscles and interview citizens on the street about what Scalia meant to them.
For some, the journey was fueled in academia – Jackson, Michigan resident Jeffrey Frounfelker recalled reading Scalia’s work, especially in the realm of privacy law, during law school. “I really enjoyed reading his opinions,” Frounfelker said. “Plus, he was always very entertaining to read, especially with his dissents.”
[Name and location redacted] agreed, calling Scalia’s writing “absolutely brilliant.”
[Name redacted] said that the way Scalia “invigorated such a strong judicial philosophy” and “contributed so much to the legal profession and the debates that we have” prompted him to pay his respects to the sometimes-controversial judge.
Finally, Joanna Smith of nearby Loudoun County, Virginia, expressed a lingering, emotional fondness for one of Scalia’s greatest values.
“Justice Scalia was friends with people who were polar opposites of his belief systems,” Smith said. “[That] showed that he brought an open-minded attitude to everything that he encountered – that is a true quality person.”
Sometimes, being in the heart of D.C. can really put the blinders on situations such as these. The city moves fast and the people move faster, but when it gets down to it, emotional events like Justice Scalia’s passing provide a wider lens. Slowing down and talking to perfect strangers on cold Washington streets provided us with new perspectives that truly opened our eyes to the city’s diversity of thought and unity of feeling during Week Three of SEGL.