WASHINGTON — Justice Antonin Scalia criticized the Supreme Court's recent decision to strike down the juvenile death penalty, calling it the latest example of politics on the court that has made judicial nominations an increasingly bitter process.
In a 35-minute speech Monday, Scalia said unelected judges have no place deciding issues such as abortion and the death penalty. The court's 5-4 ruling March 1 to outlaw the juvenile death penalty based on "evolving notions of decency" was simply a mask for the personal policy preferences of the five-member majority, he said.
"If you think aficionados of a living Constitution want to bring you flexibility, think again," Scalia told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think tank. "You think the death penalty is a good idea? Persuade your fellow citizens to adopt it. You want a right to abortion? Persuade your fellow citizens and enact it. That's flexibility."
"Why in the world would you have it interpreted by nine lawyers?" he said.
Scalia, who has been mentioned as a possible chief justice nominee should Chief Justice William Rehnquist retire, outlined his judicial philosophy of interpreting the Constitution according to its text, as understood at the time it was adopted.
Citing the example of abortion, he said unelected justices too often choose to read new rights into the Constitution, at the expense of the democratic process.
"Abortion is off the democratic stage. Prohibiting it is unconstitutional, now and forever, coast to coast, until I guess we amend the Constitution," said Scalia, who was appointed to the court by President Reagan in 1986.
He blamed Chief Justice Earl Warren, who presided from 1953-69 over a court that assaulted racial segregation and expanded individual rights against arbitrary government searches, for the increased political role of the Supreme Court, citing Warren's political background. Warren was governor of California and the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1948.
"You have a chief justice who was a governor, a policy-maker, who approached the law with that frame of mind. Once you have a leader with that mentality, it's hard not to follow," Scalia said, in response to a question from the audience.
Scalia said increased politics on the court will create a bitter nomination fight for the next Supreme Court appointee, since judges are now more concerned with promoting their personal policy preferences rather than interpreting the law.
"If we're picking people to draw out of their own conscience and experience a 'new' Constitution, we should not look principally for good lawyers. We should look to people who agree with us," he said, explaining that's why senators increasingly probe nominees for their personal views on positions such as abortion.
"When we are in that mode, you realize we have rendered the Constitution useless," Scalia said.
Scalia, who has had a prickly relationship with the media, wasted no time in shooing away photographers from the public event five minutes into his speech.
"Could we stop the cameras? I thought I announced ... a couple are fine at first, but click click click click," Scalia said, impatiently waving the photographers off.
During a speech last year in Hattiesburg, Miss., a deputy federal marshal demanded that an Associated Press reporter and another journalist erase recordings of the justice's remarks.
The justice later apologized. The government conceded that the U.S. Marshals Service violated federal law in the confrontation and said the reporters and their employers were each entitled to $1,000 in damages and attorneys' fees.