Scalia Shares Legal Insights in Memphis

By Andy Meek

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia doesn’t agree with people who say oral arguments before the court are probably unnecessary or that briefs matter more toward the outcome of cases.

That was among the opinions and insights he shared Monday, Dec. 13, during a gathering at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.

When asked if oral arguments have ever changed his mind about a case, Scalia didn’t go that far – only that they’ve helped him “make up his mind.” Scalia also said he doesn’t agree with people who say the third year of law school is unnecessary and reiterated his belief that judgments of foreign courts shouldn’t influence opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Scalia followed that gathering with lunchtime remarks at The Peabody hotel, at the start of which he was given a standing ovation. There, Scalia said, among other things, that state supreme courts – not the U.S. Supreme Court – hold more sway over the lives of everyday Americans.

As proof, he said, some 90 percent of laws affecting peoples’ day-to-day lives are state laws.

“If you murder someone anywhere in the country, if you do it right, you haven’t broken federal law,” he said.

Scalia, a former D.C. Court of Appeals judge who joined the high court in September of 1986, said one of the most surprising things he encountered after arriving there was “the very bad quality of argument,” though he said it’s much better now.

He promoted an independent judiciary system and the U.S. system of a decentralized government.

“If you were to ask the average man on the street what has been the greatest source of our freedoms … you would probably get a response (like) freedom of speech. Freedom of the press,” Scalia said. “That is so mistaken. Do you not realize every tyrant in the world has a bill of rights? Every banana republic? … Unless the real constitution of a country prevents the centralization of power, all the rest is words on paper.”