Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said Thursday he was never approached about becoming chief justice around the time William Rehnquist died in 2005, but he said he wouldn't have enjoyed the job anyway.
Scalia, who was the headliner at the annual dinner of the Federalist Society’s national convention, said he would have felt pressure to build consensus on the Court if he had become chief justice. That would have meant, he said, writing fewer fiery opinions and concurrences.
“That’s always the problem, and that’s why I’m glad I’m not chief justice,” Scalia told the meeting of conservative lawyers.
Jan Crawford, the CBS News chief legal correspondent who was interviewing Scalia on stage at Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel, asked Scalia whether the White House under President George W. Bush ever approached him about the possibility. Scalia said, “No.”
“Would you have accepted?” Crawford asked.
“I don’t know,” Scalia said. After a pause, he added, “I wouldn’t have liked it,” but he said he would have considered the opportunity.
(In her 2007 book, “Supreme Conflict,” Crawford writes that Justice Clarence Thomas, but not Scalia, had gotten a call to gauge his interest in fall 2004, but that the Bush administration was wary of a Senate confirmation hearing for either Scalia or Thomas. Also, she writes, Scalia was already 69 years old.)
Now the Court’s senior associate justice, Scalia said he witnessed a change in Rehnquist’s opinions after he became chief justice in 1986. “He was a shin-kicker before he became chief justice. He wrote very sharp, combative dissents,” Scalia said.
Referring to Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.’s desire for greater consensus on the Court and fewer concurrences, Scalia offered this advice to Roberts, who was not in attendance: “Lots of luck.”
In an hour-long conversation before 1,400 people, Crawford and Scalia also addressed how Scalia hires his clerks, the role of religion on the Court and the annual State of the Union address. The event was not recorded, in accordance with Scalia’s usual request.
Some of the loudest applause came while Scalia was reiterating his opposition to broadcasting the Court’s oral arguments — but not because of the camera issue itself. He noted that a major proponent of cameras, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), will be leaving office soon. Federalist Society members, who have been wary of Specter at least since he opposed Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination in 1987, began clapping enthusiastically.
Scalia offered some explanation for why he tends to hire his law clerks from a small number of schools. He said he often relies on recommendations from former clerks of his who now teach at law schools, and he said he just doesn’t know many of the faculty members at lower-ranked law schools.
“I don’t know who they are,” he said of the top-ranked students at such schools, “and I’m not going to be able to tell just from an interview.”
On another issue of diversity, Scalia downplayed the importance of having justices of different religions. Since the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, a Protestant, the Court is made of Roman Catholics and Jews. “There hasn’t been a great upswelling of Protestant anger,” Scalia noted. “It’s not the dividing line that it used to be.”
Pressed by Crawford about the significance of having no Protestant on the Court, Scalia responded flatly: “The significance is there’s no Protestant on the Court.”
Scalia said not to expect his attendance at President Barack Obama’s next State of the Union address. He said he hasn’t gone to an address in at least 10 years, and last year’s address included a mini-controversy involving Obama and Justice Samuel Alito Jr. over the Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.
“You sit there, just looking stupid,” Scalia said, comparing the address to a pep rally with Democrats and Republicans cheering alternately. “It is a juvenile spectacle, and I resent being called upon to give it dignity.”
Alito was in attendance at Thursday night's dinner, sitting at a table in front of the stage.