The Face of Justice

Reflections on the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

Gabriel Begle
The Face of Justice

The news of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia hit the news cycle late Saturday night. It was carried by every major U.S. news outlet. From Germany’s Der Spiegel, via the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Switzerland or The Guardian in the United Kingdom, Scalia’s surprising death made headlines as pundits all over the world tried to read the tea leaves of what this would mean for the political direction of the highest court of the United States.

Almost immediately, politicians from either corner of the highly divided U.S. political spectrum chimed in and, after offering their condolences, went right to the heart of the matter. Who would appoint the new Supreme Court justice? Republican politicians, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, called for President Obama to allow the incoming 45th president of the U.S.A. to fill this important appointment. President Barack Obama, likewise, in a short press briefing on Saturday evening, asserted that the highest court of the United States should not be incomplete for nearly a year, suggesting that he would nominate a replacement for Scalia for Senate hearings as soon as possible.

What’s the fuss, considering the fact that Justice Scalia’s funeral has not even been held and his family’s grief is powerfully palpable and real? Politicians and commentators all around the globe know that presidents and senate or house majority leaders come and go—Supreme Court justices stay; in Justice Scalia’s case for nearly 30 years. Scalia’s credentials as a conservative are easily recognized when considering his record on the court.

As the significance of Scalia’s death sank in and I noticed the growing stream of condolences and statements live-blogged on The Washington Post web site, I wondered about the ever-changing face of human justice that is shaped by legal traditions, culture, society, and, increasingly, powerful (and often unconscious) worldviews.

In the Middle Ages, justice was often a one-man show. Kings, priests, and feudal lords made judgments based on canon law or ordeals. Courts did not subscribe to the principle of the presumption of innocence (“innocent until proven guilty”). Rather, it was the duty of the accused to prove his innocence. Courts following the French Revolution in 1789 or the Russian Revolution in 1917 established very different legal principles and case law. People living during these times experienced drastic changes.

This points to the underlying problem of human legal systems: they all depend on changing principles, evolving societies, and current preferences. Don’t mistake this as a below-the-belt jab against the legal system of the United States—even though I confess that, coming from Germany, the volunteer jury system does make me nervous at times. I am grateful that I live under this legal system instead of Sharia law. Justice, however, cannot be evolving and shaped by society’s preferences (just think about the changing perspectives regarding human sexuality and their reflection in current law).

As a follower of Jesus I am looking for eternal principles that are solidly founded on the Rock, instead of case law determined by changes in popular culture.

God’s law is not just one option among many others. It reflects the Lawgiver and is good (Ps. 119:39; 19:8), righteous (Ps. 119:75; Rom. 7:12), eternal (Ps. 119:160), and holy (Rom. 7:12). One just doesn’t fiddle with these characteristics. It does, however, inspire confidence. As Abraham expressed it so well in Genesis 18:25: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” This rhetorical question requires an emphatic. “He shall!” In fact, He has already done so. Following the cross, salvation is freely available. The Righteous took upon Himself the guilt of the unrighteous. The Innocent covered the guilty. “Most assuredly,” Jesus said, “I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in Him who sent me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).

In the midst of an ever more fractious and volatile world where truth is relative and justice depends on who authoritatively interprets previous case law and constitutional questions I am not worried about differing political convictions and social choices that will determine my eternal destiny. I know that before the bench of the heavenly Supreme Court “neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38, 39).

That’s good news.

Gabriel Begle