Scalia's closed-door session with lawmakers proves light on politics, attendees say
When Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) announced that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia would visit the Capitol to discuss the Constitution, at a closed-door meeting sponsored by the House Tea Party Caucus, some argued that the conservative justice had crossed too far into the world of politics and had abandoned his neutrality by aligning himself with a group of right-leaning lawmakers.
But when the reviews came in Monday night, the three-dozen or so House attendees -- including a handful of liberal members -- said that the hour-long talk was less a political powwow and more an intellectual discussion about the Constitution and the separation of powers.
"This was pretty dry, actually," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), one of several liberal House members who attended the talk.
Schakowsky called the event, which was open to lawmakers of both parties, "fascinating" and said that it was conducted "at a very, very high level," with "lots of Latin phrases from lawyers."
"I didn't sense at all ... that it was skewed in a particular [political] direction," she added, noting that as one might expect, Scalia "suggested that we all get a hard copy of the Federalist Papers and read them and underline them and dog-ear them."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), another liberal member who attended the event, also gave a positive review of the event, held in a Capitol Visitors Center meeting room. Nadler noted that Scalia fielded questions on issues ranging from earmarks to constitutional conventions.
Nadler himself asked Scalia a question about the issue of state secrets, engaging in a collegial give and take with the conservative justice that was "probably the most entertaining exchange" of the evening, according to Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.).
Rather, Scalia focused his remarks on the importance of the legislative branch, telling members that Congress is "the 900-pound gorilla" of the three branches, said Rep. Don Manzullo (R-Ill.).
When one questioner asked Scalia about the potentially contentious issues of presidential czars and recess appointments, the justice began to answer but then stopped, noting that the court might one day have to deal with those matters, according to Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.).
And on another potentially hot topic -- congressional earmarks -- Nadler said that Scalia's answer wasn't a surprise to him, saying that the justice essentially "took it for granted that they were constitutional."
Rather, it was Scalia's response on the history of earmarks that was unexpected, Nadler said. He said the justice told lawmakers that in the early days of the republic, Congress would pass earmarks giving the president much wider latitude on spending federal dollars than those granted today.
"He said, to my surprise -- I wasn't aware of this -- that that was the way it was done in the first few years of the republic," Nadler said. "He said [President Thomas] Jefferson spent half the federal budget in dealing with the Barbary pirates, paying ransom" for captured American sailors.
With a chuckle, Nadler added: "I don't know that Congress had a line-item, 'Barbary pirates bribery.' "
| January 24, 2011; 9:39 PM ET
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