Cibolo Creek Ranch in the Chinati Mountains of western Texas is about as distant a scene as possible from the courthouses of Washington, D.C., which is probably why former Justice Antonin Scalia chose to accept the invitation for a free vacation there from ranch owner John Poindexter. After Poindexter, a wealthy Democrat funder, found his visitor dead in his guest room on Saturday, conspiracy theories and political upheaval ensued. Amid the chaos, the public seemed divided on how to treat the event: to mourn the passing of a great legal mind or to criticize his originalist leanings, decry his “raw and provocative” comments, as kindly described by The New York Times, and rejoice that the conservative justice had passed.
We asked ourselves a similar question after the passing of David Bowie on Jan. 10. The British singer was almost universally celebrated as a musical innovator, a gender-bending genius and a role model for outsiders. Yet within hours of his death, internet commenters were quick to remind Bowie’s admirers of his rape of 14-year-old groupie Lori Maddox, sharing multiple articles pointing out that heroes, too, can be predators. To view Bowie as merely a larger-thanlife personality and influential public figure, these pieces argued, is naïve. He had a dark personal history for which he never publicly atoned. His legacy tells only half of the story.
From Bowie to Scalia, the death of a celebrity inevitably brings forth equal parts vitriol and solemnity from the public. Fans and detractors seem to latch onto whatever casts their hero or nemesis in the most agreeable light. What this one-sided approach misses, however, is that nobody as influential as Bowie or Scalia is defined by either their legacy or their personal life alone. Separating the two is impossible, and to argue otherwise is indeed naive.
Those who celebrate Scalia’s passing may feel relief with the end of a conservative influence on the Supreme Court. They may rejoice in the fact that a man who attempted to overturn Roe v. Wade, who suggested that Black students should enroll at “slower” colleges and who publicly supported torture practices is no longer able to dictate the terms by which Americans live their lives. But in doing so, they rejoice — whether implicitly or intentionally — at the death of a human being with loved ones whose grief is no less genuine than his critics’ joy. Scalia, like any other public figure, did not exist in a vacuum.
And because Scalia’s rulings, like those of any justice, were influenced by his beliefs and character, they cannot be rightfully divested from his personhood. Therefore, those celebrating must understand that to condemn Scalia’s voting record is to condemn his humanity — an act that serves to disrespect the grief experienced by the late justice’s friends and family. This may not have been the majority of revelers’ intentions, but the significance of accountability remains.
Likewise, those who call for pause to honor Scalia, the person, may note an alarming lack of decorum on the part of his opponents. It may seem as though politics are being elevated above human decency and respect. But they forget that some of the rulings over which Scalia presided — and certainly the minority opinions he expressed — did enormous damage to marginalized communities in the United States. The LGBTQ community, racial minorities and low-income individuals have ample reason to celebrate Scalia’s passing. By glossing over his legacy in an attempt to recognize the passing of a prominent justice, mourners erase the pain these communities have experienced, however indirectly, at Scalia’s hand. They too must be mindful and hold themselves accountable to the views they express.
Both parties should be aware of the complex nature of Scalia’s death — the pain his family and friends are going through right now and the pain his legal principles have afflicted on members of the American public. We should respectfully criticize his policies, but also be conscious of what the justice’s passing means to those closest to him.