If Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia weren't a judge, it seems likely he'd be an English professor or an editorial writer.
Speaking at a Ritz-Carlton ballroom packed with a few hundred Northern Virginia business leaders Wednesday, Scalia opened up about his passion for the written word and the power of persuasion.
Much of the senior associate justice's speech drew from his 2008 book, “Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges.” His appearance was part of the Northern Virginia Technology Council's “Business Titan Breakfast” series.
Scalia noted that the import of public speaking and writing has been around since the beginning of civilized society, from the ancient days of Aristotle and Isocrates.
“You're not going to write well unless you have a command of written English, and this is not something that you acquire the night before. It's a lifetime exercise,” said Scalia, the longest current-serving member of the U.S. Supreme Court. “The principle way to get good at [writing] is to read good stuff … lawyers are generally such bad writers because their profession condemns them to reading the worst writing.”
A 77-year-old father of nine and grandfather of 33, Scalia is known as one of the most conservative justices in modern times. A devout Catholic, he was appointed to the nation's high court by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
On writing, he continued: “I am not a facile writer. Frankly, I doubt that any good writer is a facile writer. I find writing to be a very painful exercise. I revise and re-revise … I do not like writing; I like having written.”
And “don't overuse italics,” Scalia said. “It makes what you write read like a teenage girl's diary.” That comment drew laughter from the crowd. The justice didn't let himself off the hook on his own language-crafting, however, saying he's a frequent offender of his italic rule.
During a brief question-and-answer portion, Scalia touched on the use of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance on U.S. citizens.
Unfortunately, Scalia said, the courts will eventually be tasked with determining whether the NSA is within legal bounds in some of its information gathering, notably wiretapping. Scalia said the judicial branch is the least qualified to make that decision, because it has little capacity to learn about surveillance and “knows the least about the extent of the threat against which the wiretapping is directed.”
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