Scalia tells Coast Guard cadets of Constitution's 'genius'

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia chats with United States Coast Guard Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz on the steps of Hamilton Hall after being welcomed to the academy on Tuesday. Go to www.theday.com for a photo gallery.
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia chats with United States Coast Guard Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz on the steps of Hamilton Hall after being welcomed to the academy on Tuesday. Go to www.theday.com for a photo gallery. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

New London - U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia told cadets at the Coast Guard Academy Tuesday that there are epochs in history where "genius just bursts forth at some place on the globe."

It happened in Greece for philosophy, in Italy for art and in 18th century America at the Constitutional Convention, Scalia said. The Constitution has lasted nearly 230 years while other countries have amended theirs and changed their form of government multiple times.

"That's how magnificent it is. That's how much it deserves your affection and your oath," he said.

As the 2014 Coast Guard Foundation Hedrick Fellow, Scalia, who is currently the longest-serving justice on the Supreme Court, explained the history of the Constitution and how he interprets it to the cadets, who, as officers, will swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution.

Scalia, who attended a military high school, also talked to the cadets about courage, which he called the "defining virtue for a military man or woman."

"I believe military service is conducive to virtue. I know of no other profession where one commits to laying down his life for his friend," he said.

The type of courage that is called for outside the service is different, Scalia said.

"It is the courage to do the right thing even when that sets us apart," he said.

The fellowship program brings renowned political, military and industry leaders to the academy to share their knowledge and insight with cadets and faculty. It was Scalia's first visit to the academy and the first time a sitting justice has spoken to the cadets.

Sandra Day O'Connor and Warren Burger are past Hedrick Fellows, but they had both retired from the Supreme Court before their addresses. Other past fellows include former Presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.

Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, the academy superintendent, said Tuesday was a "thought-provoking evening."

Scalia was asked a wide range of questions, from how much weight he gives to oral arguments to where he goes to think and how he decided specific cases. The audience laughed at several of his responses. He told a cadet that as he is dozing off to sleep sometimes, he will think, "Hey, that could be a great dissent!"

Scalia said the biggest challenge for a judge is to separate his or her own biases when deciding a case. When he considered whether flag burning is protected by the First Amendment, Scalia said, he could not "send that flag burner to jail as I would've liked."

When asked about the proposed legislation in Connecticut that would allow physicians to prescribe medication to help terminally ill patients end their lives, Scalia said, "I don't do morality, I do law." He explained it is up to the people to decide the issue because the Constitution does not provide insight either way.

Scalia was reluctant to give his opinion on the president's comments in the State of the Union that he would use the "power of the pen" by signing executive orders to pursue his policy objectives, and jokingly said he agreed to take questions but did not say he would answer them.

He did go on to say, however, that for those who think the president is ignoring the law, Congress could hold him accountable by refusing to approve his appointments or by cutting the budget. It is not the court's job to make sure the president will "dot the i's and cross the t's," he said. Rather, the court was established to prevent harm to individuals.

While the system has been criticized for "gridlock," Scalia said, it was designed that way - so only the good, well-supported legislation would pass, and it is the structure of government that will preserve freedom.

The 78-year-old Scalia was appointed to the nation's highest court in 1986. While at the academy Tuesday, he also taught Capt. Glenn Sulmasy's constitutional law class and attended a reception in his honor.

"What an opportunity for the cadets to get to see true greatness in an individual, and a great legal mind," said Sulmasy, the chairman of the humanities department.

Karlin Joh, a first-class, or senior, cadet who was in the law class, said she and her classmates were honored to meet with Scalia and appreciative of his openness. She said they discussed specific cases and how Scalia interprets the Constitution.

"Everyone gained an awareness of how the process works," she said.

Capt. Brigid Pavilonis, an academy professor, said Scalia's talk to the entire student body would hopefully help the cadets better understand their role as future officers and public servants.

"It really shines a different sort of light for them, in terms of what service can mean and why they should be proud of who they are and what they're about to do," she said.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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