Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Portrait of the Playground Bully as an Old Man

In a scathingly sarcastic letter to The Boston Herald, Justice Scalia attacks the interpretation of the widely reported incident mentioned in my earlier post: that he had apparently flashed an "obscene gesture, flicking his hand under his chin" in response to a question after attending church.

Scalia claims that according to The Italians, a book he cites in his letter (which today enjoyed a dramatic rise in its Amazon rank), the gesture--"the extended fingers of one hand moving slowly back and forth under the raised chin"--means "I couldn't care less. It's no business of mine. Count me out."

Scalia's letter is interesting for a number of reasons. First, the gesture Scalia mentions in his letter differs in description (and intent) than the one described by the reporter. Those of us who spent ten years living in Italian-American neighborhoods (I used to live in the Belmont section of the Bronx) know exactly the gesture described by the reporter--and it's not the one mentioned in Scalia's source.

What's unexplained is what Scalia left out of his letter: if the gesture is as inoffensive as he said it was, then why did he demand that the photographer for Boston Archdiocese's newspaper" not publish the snapshot taken of the historic moment? Why not ask the archdiocese to release the photo?

But let's give Scalia the hypothetical benefit of the doubt: it's quite possible that the entire incident was simply a misunderstanding. Ultimately, what Scalia did in front of that church is not, on its own, earth-shattering. Instead (to reiterate the argument of my original post), there is a pattern of crankiness that is increasingly worrisome. The letter's shifty and vituperative tone--which would certainly be appropriate for, say, Cloyce's Coffee Klatsch--is to be expected of this kind of Supreme, not this one. Scalia even plays the PC card, ridiculously accusing the reporter of falling victim to stereotypical portrayals.

Moreover, his apparent proclivity for making fun of the names of reporters is reminiscent of the playground bullies we all used to despise (and a few bloggers we all love). A few years ago, 20-year veteran Supreme Court watcher Tony Mauro published an article in Legal Times, noting that "Scalia has complained early and often about the 1988 law that forbids judges from accepting honoraria." Scalia issued a bizarrely over-the-top response, attacking the relatively level-headed, if anonymously sourced, essay as "characteristically Mauronic." At the time Mauro retorted appropriately, "The last time my name was turned into an adjective was when I was in fourth grade."

Still writing as if he were on his milk break, Scalia includes this salvo in his latest letter: "Your reporter, an up-and-coming 'gotcha' star named Laurel J. Sweet, asked me (o-so-sweetly) what I said to those people. . . "

Maybe Little Tony needs a time out.