Justice Antonin Scalia's Had a Legacy of Connection to Jews and Israel
Conservative US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died on Saturday in a Texas ranch at age 79. Even as tributes were being paid to honor his service, a political struggle began to see who would replace him. Scalia was known to often be a friend to the Jews in some of his decisions on the bench.
In a 1998 Supreme Court decision, National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, Justice Scalia, a Roman-Catholic judge from an Italian-American background, was the first judge to use the Yiddish word chutzpah and apparently felt no need to explain the word in his written comments.When the Supreme Court ruled that Jerusalem should continue to be listed without a comma followed by Israel on the passports of Americans born in Jerusalem, Scalia was also one of three dissenters who believed that Israel should be on the passport. The 2015 case of Zivotofsky v. Kerry involved Menachem Zivotofsky, an American born in Jerusalem, had petitioned to have his passport reflect his place of birth as “Israel” instead.
Scalia criticized his fellow justices saying that their reasoning was a “leap worthy of the Mad Hatter”, and emphasized his belief that “Israel” should be listed as place of birth on those passports.
In 1989 a prominent US attorney Nathan Lewin, an Orthodox Jew who has defended Jewish rights before the Court and was an old Harvard Law classmate and sparring partner of Justice Scalia, brought the case of County of Allegheny v. ACLU to the Supreme Court in which Scalia was part of a majority that ruled that in favor of a menorah having the right to stand on public property.
Surprisingly, Justice Scalia was actually very good friends with liberal Jewish Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They took their families on vacations together, regularly went out together, and met up each New Year’s Eve. “Call us the odd couple,” Scalia recently said. “She likes opera, and she’s a very nice person. What’s not to like?,” then quipped, “except her views on the law”.
The two justices made a series of joint appearances together promoting the opera while at the same time advocating for unity and respect across the political divide in increasingly bitter partisan times.
Though Justice Scalia was strong in his Catholic faith, he learned about other legal traditions – including Jewish law. He met with Adjunct Law Professor and Rabbi Noson Gurary when visiting the University at Buffalo Law School in 2002. “Knowledge of another legal system helped him to understand [the U.S. legal] system” better,” Gurary said about Scalia’s correspondence.
Later that year, Scalia was one of only three Supreme Court Justices (along with two Jewish Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer) who attended and spoke at inaugural meeting for the National Institute for Judaic Law. Scalia’s old law school colleague Nathan Lewin and his daughter Alyza founded the organization that provided regular classes and events to educate people about Jewish legal issues. The event to announce the opening of the organization, attended by 200 people, was the first kosher dinner served in the Supreme Court.