WASHINGTON – Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is not the sort who leaves readers wondering what he really thinks, especially when it comes to members of Congress. In two opinions Thursday, Scalia disparaged lawmakers, not for the first time, as sleepy and lazy.
To be sure, the 75-year-old justice will just as eagerly take a shot — or two or three — at colleagues on the court who come out on the other side of cases.
Scalia has laid out an approach to the law over his quarter-century on the court that rests on the meaning of the Constitution as it was understood by the people who wrote it and on the plain language of laws, not the legislative record that accompanies many bills. He also embraces the view that people should turn to their elected officials, not the courts, to solve many problems.
Commenting in a case involving cocaine sentences, Scalia wrote briefly to criticize one part of Justice Sonia Sotomayor's majority opinion that delved into legislative history. In particular, Scalia did not like that Sotomayor made reference to congressional testimony by a Yale medical school professor.
Scalia said the outcome of the case would be the same even if the professor "had not lectured an undetermined number of likely somnolent congressmen on the 'damaging effects of cocaine smoking on people in Peru.'"
In the other case, he dissented from the court's holding that upheld a longer sentence for a repeat offender whose earlier crimes included fleeing police custody in a vehicle.
The court has entertained several cases about what constitutes a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act. The federal law makes defendants eligible for longer prison terms if they have three prior convictions for crimes that are either violent felonies or serious drug offenses.
The problem is that while the law names some violent crimes, it also leaves open to interpretation whether other offenses should qualify.
Scalia said Thursday he has had enough of these kinds of cases, which he said result from imprecise criminal laws written by Congress.
"Fuzzy, leave-the-details-to-be-sorted-out-by-the-courts legislation is attractive to the congressman who wants credit for addressing a national problem but does not have the time (or perhaps the votes) to grapple with the nitty-gritty," Scalia wrote.
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