Why Antonin Scalia's Passing is Bad News for Criminal Defendants

Though Antonin Scalia was known for his conservative viewpoints, he displayed irreverence for right wing convention with his opinions on criminal defense. Criminal defense attorneys and defendants far and wide have benefited from Scalia’s unrelenting loyalty to constitutional principles. Let’s take a look at why Scalia’s passing is bad news for criminal defendants.

Scalia’s Interpretation of the Constitution

Scalia was famous for his incredibly strict interpretation of the Constitution. These viewpoints favored criminal defendants and often left Scalia at odds with fellow conservatives on the Supreme Court and beyond. In some instances, Scalia’s interpretation of the Constitution actually put him in agreement with the liberal section of the court.

Such issues where Scalia bucked conservative convention were the right to be tried by a jury, the freedom from unreasonable search and seizures and the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses during prosecutions. He was also against sending individuals to jail for the violation of vaguely written statutes.

Antonin Scalia Official SCOTUS Portrait crop

A Man Committed to his Principles

Unlike many other public figures, Scalia’s opinions weren’t driven by populism. He wasn’t reflexive in the slightest. Instead of siding for or against law enforcement out of sheer ideological allegiance, Scalia adopted a hard line stance on personal rights and often found himself on the side of criminal defense attorneys. Scalia was clearly a man of principal who refused to let the opinions of his peers affect his thoughts, opinions, and judgments.

A Vigorous Defense of Enumerated Rights

Though Scalia was generally considered a “textualist” who was steadfastly against carving out additional constitutional rights, he was a strong proponent of enumerated rights. He put up vigorous defenses for the fourth and sixth amendments. He is widely praised for his revival of the modern conception of trespass. There is no doubt that Scalia was motivated to protect the privacy of individuals and their homes. These opinions commonly pitted him against law enforcement, government, and other power brokers yet he refused to wilt.

Scalia’s Impact on Trial by Jury and Sentences

Scalia was a true champion of fairness in sentencing and a fierce defendant of the sixth amendment guaranteeing the right to a jury trial. Rather than give judges full control, Scalia thought it prudent to allow a jury to decide which facts are used to enhance sentences in excess of the statutory maximums. His work on Blakely v. Washington illustrated how the sixth amendment is violated by the use of facts beyond those found by the jury.

Scalia’s Take on Hearsay Evidence

Scalia is widely lauded for reviving the confrontation clause in the case of Crawford v. Washington. The court decided that “reliability” was not a sufficient standard for allowing testimony from an out-of-court witness. The case was groundbreaking because it transformed the nuances of the law in regard to the admissibility of hearsay evidence. In the past, prosecutors relied on certified reports.

After Crawford v. Washington, prosecutors must now provide the defendant the right to cross-examine the accuser during the criminal proceeding. It is a critically important advantage for defendants and Scalia can be credited with its existence. Scalia putting this clause back on the map has made a considerable difference in courtrooms across the country. There is little doubt that criminal defendants will suffer harsher fates without the presence Scalia’s unique interpretations on the Supreme Court.

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