Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia addressed a group of U.S. lawmakers, most affiliated with the Tea Party, in a closed-door session today on Capitol Hill.
Scalia urged his listeners to strictly adhere to the U.S. Constitution, according to several lawmakers who attended the session. A strict interpretation of the Constitution has been a hallmark of Scalia’s 24-year tenure on the court.
The gathering was sponsored by the Tea Party Caucus, a group of 52 fiscally conservative House Republicans organized by Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota. Tea Party activists spotlighted strict adherence to the Constitution as a rallying cry during the 2010 congressional elections in which they helped Republicans win control of the House.
Scalia “gave our new members and our old members good advice, and that is to look first to the United States Constitution” said Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican. “This was a good opportunity for members to hear someone who is widely respected in terms of taking that conservative view of the Constitution.”
The justice did not make himself available for comment after his appearance.
Series of Seminars
Scalia’s speech was the first in a series of seminars the Tea Party Caucus plans to hold twice a month to refresh members on “basic principles,” said Doug Sachtleben, a spokesman for Bachmann. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College in Michigan, is scheduled to address the group at its next meeting.
Bachmann is seeking to expand her political influence. On Jan. 21, she addressed an anti-tax group in Des Moines, Iowa, raising speculation that she is considering a presidential bid.
Tomorrow, Bachmann will deliver a webcast response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on the Tea Party Express website. Her comments will follow nationally televised remarks by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman who was tapped by Republican leaders to give the party’s official response to the speech.
Roughly 50 lawmakers attended Scalia’s seminar, Bachmann said, including Democratic Representatives Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Jerald Nadler of New York and Mel Watt of North Carolina.
After addressing the members, Scalia answered questions on several “hot-button topics,” said Goodlatte, including the constitutionality of lawmakers seeking funding for pet projects through the process known as earmarking. Last year, before they won the House majority, House Republican leaders announced that their caucus members would stop seeking earmarks.
Scalia, whose “original meaning” approach to the Constitution has made him a star in conservative legal circles, planned to focus his talk on the separation of powers among the government’s executive, congressional and judicial branches, Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said before his appearance.
Lawmakers present for Scalia’s remarks said he reminded them of the importance of closely following the Constitution.
“In many ways when it comes to legislation moving, we are the first pass at making sure it’s constitutional,” said Representative David Schweikert, an Arizona Republican.
The legislators also praised Scalia’s ability to explain complicated legal issues.
“He has the unique ability to discuss complex issues in a very simplistic manner, and with an unbelievable and profound respect for being apolitical,” said Representative Michael Grimm, a New York Republican.
Although jurists often speak to ideologically based groups, some legal scholars questioned whether Scalia’s speech to the Tea Party Caucus would create appearance problems.
“It certainly adds to the politicization of issues surrounding the judiciary,” Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota law professor who served as President George W. Bush’s chief ethics officer, said in December. “When a highly publicized case comes along, it does not help the Supreme Court for the justices to appear aligned one with one party or the other.”
The speech was not the first time Scalia has met with a congressional group. In 2007 he spoke at an event sponsored by the Constitution Caucus, a group founded by Representative Scott Garrett, a Republican from New Jersey.
Earlier this year, Justice Sonia Sotomayor met with the Congressional Caucus on the Judicial Branch, a bipartisan group of lawmakers that has hosted nine members of the Supreme Court. In addition, at the invitation of Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Justice Stephen Breyer addressed panel members from both parties during a closed-door meeting at the committee retreat on Jan. 19.