Justice Scalia Goes to Conservative Legal Event, Gives Boring Speech

Justice Antonin ScaliaMark Avery/Orange County Register/ZUMA


The Federalist Society kicked off its national convention Thursday in Washington, DC, with a speech from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who is one of two justices headlining the event. The other is Justice Samuel Alito, who is on tap for the conservative legal group’s big dinner Thursday night.

For years, liberal good-government types have been criticizing Scalia and the other conservative justices for participating in Federalist Society functions. The events also serve as fundraisers for the organization, which promotes conservative positions in the nation’s ongoing legal debates. Critics contend that the involvement of Scalia et. al. violates various legal ethics codes. In 2011, for instance, Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas attended the annual dinner associated with the Federalist Society’s national convention—hours after the Supreme Court decided whether to take up the main challenges to the Affordable Care Act. And it just so happened that the law firms representing the Obamacare challengers were sponsors of that dinner and that lawyers from those firms were among the guests rubbing shoulders with Scalia and Thomas.

Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, said at the time, “This stunning breach of ethics and indifference to the code belies claims by several justices that the court abides by the same rules that apply to all other federal judges. The justices were wining and dining at a black-tie fundraiser with attorneys who have pending cases before the court. Their appearance and assistance in fundraising for this event undercuts any claims of impartiality, and is unacceptable.”

But such complaints have not caused Scalia and his conservative brethren to rethink their cozy relationship with the Federalist Society, and this morning the group could once again boast a big get—the often fiery justice who is a hero within conservative legal circles. But if any of the conventioneers were hoping for fireworks from Scalia, they were sorely disappointed. Rather than opine on Hobby Lobby and religious freedom or the Affordable Care Act and government overreach, Scalia spent 30 minutes at the dais lecturing on the history of Magna Carta—”No definite article!” he insisted—and its influence on American law.

Scalia mostly stuck to legal issues from the 13th century. He might well have been a curator from the Library of Congress, where the Magna Carta is currently on exhibit (sponsored, incidentally, by the Federalist Society). Scalia ended his speech by urging everyone to go see the 800-year-old document.

In years past, the conference has drawn an all-star lineup of firebrand conservative politicians and aspiring presidential candidates: Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Republican Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), and incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). But this year, the only politician of note on the schedule is Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R). The rest of the usual suspects are basking in the glow of the GOP’s Election Day victories and preparing for their takeover of the Senate. As for Scalia, if attendees want to see him let loose, they might have to wait for his next Supreme Court opinion.