Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Last week we lost a number of people who made a real difference. One of them never held elective office, and she remained a part and parcel of the town that she was born and raised in, that was Harper Lee, the author of the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
In that book she wrote these words:
“We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe- some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others- some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men. But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.”
A few days before she died, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, alone, while at an exclusive hunting lodge in Texas. In a way he too was a prophet, but not of equality before the law, his judicial opinions almost always favored the rich, the elites, those of white European ancestry, as well as those who shared his religious views on the limited rights of women and gays. In fact, Scalia believed in the inherent inequity of people, and his opinions for the most part echoed that idea, for Scalia, law remained fixed in time and could not change, except when he wanted to change it.
I do not read a lot of novels, but this is one that I did, of course after I saw the film by the same name. Harper Lee was an amazing writer as well as a gifted prophet, if you will. She was able to see through the cultural, religious, and racial prejudices of her times and write a novel that echoes though the decades, and will probably remain a classic of literature for centuries to come.
Harper Lee demonstrated something that Scalia, a legal giant by all measure never understood. She actually believed that all people should be equal before the law. Scalia, for all of his brilliance, never really understood that. He held to an interpretation of law and the Constitution that existed before the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
Scalia called himself an “Originalist” in his understanding of the Constitution. He viewed the Constitution in the same way as Roger Taney, the author of the Dred Scott decision, and the Court members who wrote the majority opinion in Plessy v. Fergusson that enshrined Jim Crow as law. Scalia, for all of his oratory, and legal brilliance, honestly believed that not everyone was equal in the eyes of the law, and it showed in opinion after opinion that he wrote from the bench. He never understood the words of Thomas Jefferson who wrote, “I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Admittedly there are a lot of people who share the opinions of the late Justice Scalia, but I am not one of them. To use the idea of Jefferson that we cannot “as a civilized society remain under the regimen of our barbarous ancestors.” That is the essence of Scalia’s “Originalism,” it is an argument that assumes, much like Fundamentalist religion that there is a point when law is fixed in time and thus immutable, even when the proponents of such views have no problem changing law or religious doctrine to suit their needs, so long as it is done in the name of some kind of faux conservatism.
I would agree with the words spoke by Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird in regard to the opinions of others like the late Justice Scalia and his disciples, “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
I am glad that I encountered the work of Harper Lee, and I mourn her passing. I do hope that many others, inspired by her writing will be the prophets of a new era.
Have a great Monday.