Former NJ Justice Peter Verniero Discusses Antonin Scalia’s Legacy

Ahead of tomorrow’s funeral mass at Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Justice Antonin Scalia’s body has lain in repose in the majestic Great Hall of the United States Supreme Court on the same catafalque that once held the coffin of President Abraham Lincoln. Thousands of dignitaries and citizens paid respects to a man with an outsized presence on the court and on American jurisprudence. One who knew Scalia is former State Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero. He spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.

Williams: Justice Scalia was known for harsh, scathing opinions and harsh questioning in the court. Was he as irascible as he seemed?

Verniero: When you met him he was a very nice person. He was humorous, he was funny, he was charming. He immediately put you at ease and was down to earth. I’ve met him on a number of occasions at social events at the Supreme Court and when you were speaking to him you would now know you were speaking to a brilliant Supreme Court jurist.

Williams: When did you first meet him?

Verniero: It was several years ago when I was on the court, actually when I was Attorney General, because we would often have meetings and the attorneys general would have meetings at the Supreme Court and he would attend receptions.

Williams: How did the way he shaped legal arguments by having a foundation in originalism? How did that shape American law?

Verniero: That’s one of his big legacies. That is the entire approach to judicial decision making. He subscribed to the so-called originalist approach which means when you’re reviewing the Constitution you give the words the same meaning they had when the document was ratified or adopted. Now, 30 years ago when he entered the court there were not a lot of folks who talked about originalism, and certainly not a lot, if any, Supreme Court justices, so he changed that whole mindset.

Williams: But even those who disagreed with some of his decisions, and you were one, still had a lot of respect for him. How do you balance those two things?

Verniero: You have to look at what makes a responsible, respected judge — his intelligence, his work ethic, he cared deeply for the institution of the Supreme Court. You don’t have to always agree with a judge to have respect for that judge, and really respect for the brilliant mind that he had.

Williams: He spent a good deal of time training young lawyers, right?

Verniero: He did. He spent a lot of time lecturing to law students and he was a professor for many years himself, a law school professor. So, he cared deeply about the teaching of law and he cared very much about the future of law under law students.

Williams: What’s the future of law without him? How’s the court going to change?

Verniero: There’s a void right now. I’ll just give you my own personal example: I became a member of the BAR in 1984, that’s when I graduated law school. Two years later he was on the Supreme Court. So, for almost the entire tenure of my own legal career as a lawyer, and then as Attorney General and then as a member of the Supreme Court in New Jersey, there was Antonin Scalia. He was the sort of anchor of that branch of the court that followed his approach, so it’s a very big loss.

Williams: And while he had a lot of seminal arguments he didn’t have a lot of seminal cases where he wrote the final opinion. One was the Second Amendment case where he interpreted it as individuals having the right to carry a gun.

Verniero: Yes, that was a very big case, the Second Amendment case. There was also a very big case that doesn’t get a lot of attention, but I’m very familiar with it. It’s in the area of random high school drug testing. The United States Supreme Court issued at the time a landmark decision that allowed under federal law for athletes in high school to be randomly drug tested. In New Jersey, when I was on the New Jersey Supreme Court, we had that same issue under the state Constitution and I wrote the court’s decision. It was a 4-3 decision, it was a close decision, but the majority opinion, my opinion, followed a lot of what Justice Scalia had said in his case.

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