Much will be said and written about the historical imprint of Justice Antonin Scalia. I am not a lawyer, so I offer these thoughts about what I know about Antonin Scalia, the person.
I first met Justice Scalia when I welcomed him to the University of Idaho before the Bellwood Lecture in 2000. We knew he was an avid fisherman, and I presented him with fishing flies purchased from the Husky station on the Moscow-Pullman Highway. He was delighted.
He spoke to a packed Student Union Ballroom with his usual charm and disarming sense of humor. He recounted that shortly after his vote upholding the First Amendment right to burn the American flag, he was greeted by his wife, Maureen, humming the “Star Spangled Banner” as she made breakfast.
In 2006, Justice Scalia administered the oath of office to me as the secretary of the interior on the South Lawn of the White House. With my family on one side and President George W. Bush on the other, my left hand on the Bible and my right hand raised, I looked squarely into Justice Scalia’s eyes as I repeated the oath that he administered. It was a great honor.
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When it came time to commemorate Idaho's Snake River Basin Adjudication, Justice Scalia was the clear choice to help us honor the occasion. In early 2014, I personally called on Justice Scalia in his Supreme Court chambers to invite him to Idaho. He joyously recounted his earlier fishing trip on the Clearwater River, and he then wheeled over to his computer, clicked on his schedule for the upcoming August and proclaimed “Governor, I am favorably inclined!” I said I would make sure that fishing would be a part of his trip.
That summer, Justice Scalia delivered his remarks to an overflowing audience at the Boise Center. He praised the SRBA as a “triumph,” which was a most fitting endorsement of our accomplishment. He was warm, gracious and very approachable by those who were fortunate enough to make his acquaintance in Boise. But we also knew that he was very much looking forward to enjoying one of Idaho’s great gifts — fishing in the Wood River Valley.
At a small gathering of friends in Sun Valley, I asked Justice Scalia if he remembered any of the lines as the lead in his college play “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare. After a dramatic pause, he enchanted us with beautifully delivered lines that sprang instantaneously from his memory.
The judicial legacy of Antonin Scalia is best left to others. What is important is that Justice Scalia loved the Constitution and was a fierce defender of states’ rights. Also, he never compromised his view that judges should interpret the law as it was written and not what judges wanted the law to be.
Justice Scalia was a kind soul and humble public servant. In concluding our personal visit in his chambers, he remarked, “You know, you could have just called me.” In other words, your time is important and you didn’t need to personally come all this way just to see me. That spoke volumes to me about Antonin Scalia the man.
We later learned that Justice Scalia relayed to his Washington staff that his time in Idaho had brought both good and bad news. The good news was that in Idaho, he just had the best day of fishing in his life. The bad news was that he believed he would never have a better day of fishing for the rest of his life. We didn’t know it then, but Justice Scalia’s final visit with us in Idaho may have been prophetic.
Dirk Kempthorne is a former mayor of Boise, U.S. senator, governor of Idaho and secretary of the Department of the Interior. He is president and CEO of the American Council of Life Insurers.