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Scalia: Portrait of a Man & Jurist

New documentary shows the human side of the Supreme Court

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June 23rd, 2017
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia

When Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away in January of 2016, the nation suffered a loss. His discerning mind and forceful opinions had shaped the Court for over 30 years. 

His death left a vacancy on the bench, and filling that seat turned into a long, drawn-out conflict as politicians wrestled for control over who would appoint the next justice. 

As that battle waged on, the people who knew Scalia—his family, his law clerks, and his fellow justices—wrestled with the loss of a caring husband and father, a generous mentor, and a revered colleague. A new documentary Scalia: Portrait of a Man & Jurist tells their story and, in doing so, exposes the largely unseen human side of Scalia, the court, and his fellow justices. 

Historically, Supreme Court justices keep a low profile, shying away from cameras, so director Chris Mortensen wasn’t sure any of the remaining justices would agree to be in his film. He says he was pleasantly surprised that Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito all agreed to appear in his film. 

Four of Scalia’s nine children also appear in the documentary. The result is a fascinating portrait of the man Chief Justice John Roberts says “will be remembered by lawyers, academics, and judges long after the people he sat on the bench with are forgotten.”

Mortensen is the rare filmmaker who has had an opportunity to interview five sitting justices. He recently shared with the Tribune what that experience was like.  

Q: You spent time with five Supreme Court justices. What surprised you?

A: The biggest surprise to me was how much affection and regard the justices have for each other. The public has a lot of misconceptions, and I actually talked about that with Justice Thomas. He said that people think they are at each other’s throats all the time, that they are in conflict, or that they are lobbying each other. In fact, that’s completely untrue. The justices have a very collegial relationship, and they appear to genuinely like each other. 

Q: What were the justices like?

A: Everyone interprets them. This one is liberal. This one is conservative. But actually, they are all just people—incredibly smart people, but people, nevertheless, and that’s what I wanted to show. Justice Kagan was so funny and animated. And Justice Thomas was hilarious. I came away from this feeling like the nation is in good hands. They are not the ideologues people have painted them to be.

Q: Four of the Scalia children appear in the film. Why did they want to participate?

A: Growing up with this man, they knew a completely different side of him from what the public saw and they wanted to share that. His youngest child, Meg, talked about how while she was growing up he would go to her school to speak to the students and there would be protests. She felt he was misunderstood.  

They wanted people to know who their dad was. That he wasn’t a homophobe or anti-women or anything else. He didn’t have an agenda. He was a legal scholar who interpreted the Constitution. 

Q: You do a great job presenting Scalia’s view of his role on the Court.

A: Scalia’s argument was always that he and his fellow justices were not there to make laws. Their job is to interpret existing laws. We’ve become so polarized in our country and nothing gets done in Congress. Some people see the Court as a shortcut—“Let’s get some judges in there and they’ll override whatever Congress is doing.” And Scalia would say, “That’s not what we do!”

Q: There are no politicians in the film? Why not?

A: What I’m trying to do is show you who this man was. As soon as you start putting politicians in…they’re politicians. They’ve got a point of view and suddenly things are skewed one way or the other. This is a portrait of Scalia’s jurisprudence, not a referendum on his career. 

Q: What did you take away from your experience of making this film?

A: The great takeaway for me is that after hearing so much about this remarkable human being, I can’t help but regret the fact that I never got to meet him. Personally, he was such a delightful man. He was funny. He was brilliant. And everyone loved him.  

Editor’s note: Scalia: Portrait of a Man & Jurist is currently streaming on Hulu. It can also be purchased or rented on iTunes starting July 11. On July 25, DVDs will be available for purchase at Amazon.com and other major online retailers.

 

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