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A Giant Has Fallen—The Death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the Future of Constitutional Government

“Presidents come and go, but the Supreme Court goes on forever.” So advised a man who ought to know, William Howard Taft. After serving as President of the United States, Taft went on to serve—probably more effectively—as Chief Justice of the United States. But, if the Supreme Court goes on forever, justices do not. Americans were reminded of this truth on Saturday when news broke that Justice Antonin Scalia had been found dead in Texas, where he had gone on a hunting trip.

The 79-year-old justice had served almost 30 years on the nation’s highest court and was by any measure one of the most influential justices in that court’s history. Indeed, Antonin Scalia is almost surely the most influential justice to sit on the Supreme Court in many decades. The loss of his influence, as well as his his crucial vote, is monumental.

Scalia’s significance lies in his commitment to originalism, also known as textualism—the belief that the Constitution of the United States is to be read and understood and applied in keeping with the language, syntax and vocabulary of its text as understood to be intended by the framers. This was how the Supreme Court had operated for decades, without even having to express originalism as a method. All that changed in modern decades as the Court and the nation’s liberal legal culture adopted an understanding of the Constitution as an evolving document that was to be interpreted in light of current social needs—even if this required the abandonment of the Constitution as a regulative document.

Progressivists, as they styled themselves, argued that the Constitution is to be interpreted as a “living” text that can be made to mean whatever modern jurists and legal theorists want the text to mean. As Scalia would later explain, judges had grown accustomed to remaking the world in their own image, abandoning constitutional government.

This process began earlier than even most conservatives recognize. One of the earliest proponents of this trajectory was President Woodrow W. Wilson. By the time Antonin Scalia arrived at the Harvard Law School in the late 1950s, the idea of the “living” Constitution was established orthodoxy.

The moral revolution now reshaping Western societies could not have occurred without a cadre of judges and justices eager to advance that revolution by the assertion of radical ideas of personal liberty, autonomy, identity and self-expression that the framers of the Constitution would never have recognized. The Constitution was bent and contorted to serve that revolution. New “rights” were invented that had no basis in the text of the Constitution itself, and would have been anathema to its original authors.