The Justice Scalia I Knew

The news media is reporting that United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died today, apparently of natural causes, at age 79.

Justice Scalia served on the Court for 30 years.  He was a staunch conservative, and as a result he was the subject of lots of controversy and attention — as is seemingly every member of the Court, from one end of the political spectrum or the other, in these days when the Supreme Court and politics are more intertwined than ever.

960I want to write about Justice Scalia for a moment, however, because he was one of two members of the Supreme Court I met personally.  (His friend and colleague, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was the other.)

I met Justice Scalia before he reached the high court, when he was a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  In those days, 30 years ago, trying to achieve a balanced budget was a big political issue, and Congress had passed a law called the Gramm-Rudman Act that provided that, if Congress couldn’t meet certain budget targets, automatic spending cuts would be imposed by the comptroller general.  The law was immediately challenged in court on a number of constitutional grounds, including separation of powers, and the judge that I was clerking for, Senior United States District Judge Oliver Gasch, got the case by random draw.  In those days, such constitutional challenges to federal statutes could be heard by a three-judge court — comprised of the original judge, a court of appeals judge, and a second district court judge — and then be subject to immediate appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Judge Scalia was the appellate court judge, and Judge Norma Holloway Johnson was the other district court judge on the panel.

The panel members and their clerks met regularly to discuss the case before the decision was announced, which is how I met Justice Scalia and got to work with him briefly.  Judge Gasch knew him, called him “Nino,” and liked him very much — so much so that my Judge gave some of his treasured cigars to Judge Scalia.  I came to like Judge Scalia, too.  He was witty and engaging and nice to the clerks working on the case, which could not be said of all of the judges serving on the district court and court of appeals at that time.  He had a fantastic sense of humor and told a pretty good joke.  He also was obviously a brilliant mind, which made working with him, when you knew his keen intellect would be reviewing your work product, a nerve-wracking experience for a new lawyer just out of law school.  Justice Scalia, though, was gracious, and his attitude made working with him a real pleasure.  He used his brilliance affirmatively, to bring out the best work from others, rather than negatively, as a cudgel or means of silencing contrary views.

The Gramm-Rudman case ended with our three-judge court unanimously voting to strike down the law, everyone went back to their respective chambers, and my brief exposure to Judge Scalia ended.  Within a short period the Supreme Court affirmed the panel decision and Judge Scalia himself was nominated to a seat on the Supreme Court — which was where his sharp legal mind really belonged — and confirmed.

I knew him only for a short time, but that limited experience left a very strong and positive impression on me, and I thank him for that.  Whatever people might say about his jurisprudence, I know from personal experience that he was a good man.  Condolences to his family and friends.

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Cold Rage

IMG_0461Today Columbus is having one of those brutal days, when the temperature is in the single digits and a hard, cold wind strikes you like a fist.  So when I walked home from work this afternoon, I was surprised to see a vigorous protest on the Broad Street sidewalk in front of the Ohio Statehouse, with still other protestors marching on the sidewalks circling Statehouse square.  The group of bundled-up protestors — men, mostly, from what I could see — were waving Don’t Tread on Me, Confederate, “III,” and American flags, handing out leaflets, and chanting at the behest of a guy holding a bullhorn.

What were they protesting?  Just about everything.  One handout had the Declaration of Independence on one side and the Bill of Rights on the other, and another encourages people to contribute to the “Ohio to Michigan:  Flint Water Drop,” which is described as “a multi-state effort to collect and deliver much-needed water to the residents of Flint, Michigan.”  One sign said “We Demand Justice” for the man shot by the authorities in connection with the Oregon public land protests.  The “III” flag is called the Nyberg three percent flag (purportedly because only three percent of the colonists fought the British during the American Revolutionary War) and apparently is a favorite of people who hold anti-government, anti-gun control views.   And when a city bus rolled up, the guy with the bullhorn started bellowing:  “Hands up!  Don’t shoot!” — which is a chant used by the protestors against the police in Ferguson, Missouri.

IMG_0464There was a lot going on at this protest, a heady mix of what might be viewed as some liberal and some conservative issues that had energized this group, but the overall message was clear:  these guys were furious.  Angry enough to come out to the center of downtown Columbus on an appallingly cold day to vent their spleens in a public forum.  Incensed about the government that they think has let them down and failed the people.  Outraged that the people of Flint, Michigan can’t get safe drinking water and willing to organize their own, people-driven effort to help the people of Flint even when the local, state, and federal government seem to be unable to do so.  To these folks, Flint is not a conservative issue or a liberal issue, it’s an issue of basic governmental functioning and competence.  If a government can’t be trusted to do the basics like provide drinking water that doesn’t poison its own citizens, then what good is it, and what are all those taxes we pay being used for?

Many pundits wonder what is driving people to support “anti-establishment” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  I think a lot of it is anger, like the rage that motivated the cold protestors in front of the Ohio Statehouse today.  It’s not political parties that have spurred them on, it’s their own perception of a country in a downward spiral.  They’re not going to put up with the direction in which they think their country is heading, and if the government isn’t going to recognize the problems and change of its own accord, then they’re just going to have to change the government.

The last two lines of the “Ohio to Michigan:  Flint Water Drop” leaflet read:  “We the People are uniting to assist and support communities in need.  No matter your race, religion, group or political affiliation, we all must come together.”  It’s really not hard to see how angry people at all points on the political spectrum might unite behind that kind of message.

Getting Down And Dirty

The New York Times carried an interesting article recently about how the “dirt cure” can make children healthier.  The theme of the article, which featured an interview with pediatric neurologist and author Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, is that children are better protected against illness and infection if they are routinely exposed to dirt — by eating natural, non-processed foods and by playing outside, with hands and knees on the soil.

2501c9ff68b8ed08549c745f9bddd4c0In the article, Dr. Shetreat-Klein relayed two fascinating things about dirt.  First, in one teaspoon of soil, there are more organisms than there are humans on our planet.  (That sounds impossible, but it’s one of those factoids that is often cited in articles about soil.) Second, soil is home to about 25 percent of Earth’s biodiversity — in the form of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, mites, microbes, and microarthropods.  There’s a lot going on below our feet that we never even think about.

Studies show that kids who play outside tend to be healthier, do better on standardized tests, have lower cortisol levels, which means they’re calmer and less stressed, and be more creative.  Dr. Shetreat-Klein thinks all of those attributes might be related to exposure to the teeming population underground.

I can’t speak to the science of it, but I suspect that Dr. Shetreat-Klein is right . . . and that there’s an additional reason for the results reported in those studies, which is that playing outside is just a lot of fun.  Of course kids who get away from their houses and play with their friends outside, explore a wooded area, build a dam in a stream, and turn over rocks just to see if there’s anything underneath are going to have stronger immune systems, because of what they’re exposed to, but they’re also going to be more curious, more self-reliant, and more willing to take risks because that’s what playing outside is all about.

Our mother used to groan when UJ and I came home with faces streaked with dust and shoes caked with mud, carrying caterpillars or crayfish or a captured garter snake or a big, weirdly shaped toadstool that we and our neighborhood friends found in the woods that encircled our houses, but I think it did us a lot of good in a lot of ways.

Friday Night At Notes

It was bitterly cold last night, with a teeth-rattling wind blowing, but Kish and I wanted to get out of the house, anyway.  We decided to walk down to High Street to check out Notes, which is something that has been on our to-do list for a while now.

IMG_0457Notes is the music venue below Copious, one of the newer restaurants in the German Village area.  Last night the Tim Cummiskey Duo was playing the 7:30 set, and there was no cover charge.  How could we go wrong?

Well, we didn’t.  I’m happy to report that Notes is a pretty nice place to spend your Friday night.  It’s a big open room, the stage at one end and the long bar at the other, with bench-style seating along the walls, several dozen tables of different sizes around the room, and even a small area in front of the stage for dancing.  The Notes bar is stocked with just about every kind of adult beverage you’d care to drink — an extremely important consideration at any night-time music venue, in my book — and there is also a limited food menu.  Kish and I tried one of the create-your-own flatbread pizzas, and it was quite tasty.

The sound quality and acoustics — the other extremely important consideration in a music venue — were excellent.  That was crucial last night, because the Tim Cummiskey Duo turned out to be a good jazz guitar and bass combo, and for that kind of music you want to be able to hear every note, in every improvisation, clearly.

Our Friday night at Notes turned out to be a fun way to beat the winter cold and the winter blahs.  Good live music will do that for you.  There are lots of fine musicians out there; they just need a place to perform.  Now we know there’s a good spot only a few blocks away.