It’s appropriate that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died at a luxury resort while freeloading as the guest of thus far unidentified wealthy sponsors as one of 40 guests at a private quail-hunting vacation party.
The resort where he died, Cibolo Ranch Resort, located on land stolen by its founder from the Apache and Comanche people in the Big Bend region of west Texas, is a posh retreat favored by the ultra rich, offering rooms priced from $350 to $800 a night — and it’s a safe bet that the bed Scalia died in was located in a top-priced room — and that the credit card that was swiped to pay for it didn’t have his name on it. (According to one report, the guests at the gathering had their bills covered by the resort’s owner, John Poindexter, a mullti-millionaire real estate owner, rancher and former investment banker.)
The acerbic, blunt-speaking Scalia made his name as a High Court judge accepting freebies from wealthy businesspeople and right-wing outfits like the Federalist Society, even taking free trips and vacation junkets from the likes of the aptly-titled “Vice” President Dick Cheney back in 2004 when Cheney had a case pending before the court involving an effort to force the VP to disclose what oil company executives had attended a closed meeting in his office on energy policy early in the first term of the Bush-Cheney administration. (Scalia, notably, did not recuse himself from hearing that case.)
We don’t at this point know what Scalia’s final junket was about — Poindexter makes a point of saying it “wasn’t about politics or law — but it’s no surprise he wasn’t there on his own dime. It wasn’t the way Scalia operated. Indeed, so egregious and frequent were Scalia’s junkets that in October 2015 the New York Times wrote an editorial condemning them  and calling for a reform to make such legalized bribery illegal.
Supreme Court justices, unlike members of Congress, don’t need to report such things as who takes them on luxury hunting trips. They are simply required under a vague judicial ethics standard to recuse themselves when they themselves feel they have a conflict of interest. Scalia made it abundantly clear, during his record 30-year tenure on the Supreme Court bench, that he did not feel getting freebies from the wealthy, affect his his judicial judgement even when his benefactor had a case pending before him.
Now that Scalia is gone, it will be interesting to see what Justice Clarence Thomas will do. Thomas, who emulated his mentor Scalia both in his voting on almost all cases brought to the High Court during his 25 years on the bench, also emulated him in taking every advantage of free vacations funded by wealthy right-wing businesspeople, like the Koch brothers and others. How will Thomas vote now on cases, without Scalia to guide him? Will he glom on to another surviving right-wing jurist — perhaps Samuel Alito?
It will also be interesting to see who President Obama comes up with to nominate as a replacement for Scalia. The initial signs aren’t good. His first words on learning of Scalia’s death were to say that he would nominate a replacement “in due time,” adding, “There will be plenty of time for me to do so and for the Senate to fulfill its responsibility to give that person a fair hearing and a timely vote.”
Actually, there is not a lot of time. If this president had an ounce of political sense, he would have realized that he was dealing with a Supreme Court that had, until Scalia’s death, four justices over the age of 77, and one, Clarence Thomas, who while only 67, has on the bench become at least as unhealthy looking his mentor Scalia. If he hasn’t long ago settled on, and done a preliminary vetting of at least one qualified replacement to nominate to fill a potential vacancy, he has been grossly negligent.
With this his last year in office, and an election year, Obama should be putting forward a nominee immediately, and demanding that the confirmation process begin. As we have painfully learned since 2000, when the Supreme Court turned the country over to the election loser, George W. Bush, there are few things more important going forward in this country than the composition of the US Supreme Court.
Even if Republicans in the Senate are able to prevent a Senate confirmation vote, or if they were able to deny confirmation of an Obama nominee on a straight party-line vote, the battle over Scalia’s replacement would certainly energize voters.
Scalia was a lighting rod for passionate hatred by most Democrats and independents too, for his opposition to women’s right to control their own bodies and reproductive health, for his lack of judicial ethics, for his full-throated defense of the state-sponsored execution, his opposition to equal opportunity, his support for government spying, and of course for his vote to halt the vote counting in Florida in the Bush-Gore presidential race.
Twitter has erupted following the news of Scalia’s death. My favorite two tweets:
“Antonin #Scalia requested cremation in his will, but millions of women will meet tomorrow to discuss if that’s really best for his body.”
“With the sudden passing of #Scalia, millions of women are in a panic, wondering where to turn to for personal medical advice.”
His admirers call this doctrinaire Catholic jurist a “man of God.” If so, and if his professed belief in a supreme being turns out to be correct, he will be facing a challenging hearing at heaven’s gate, and not just for his demonstrated fondness for other people’s money. He also goes to his day of judgement with a lot of blood staining his robes — including, perhaps, that of Gustavo Garcia, whose petition to the Supreme Court for a stay of execution in Texas was denied last Wednesday by Scalia, in what appears to have been his last official act.