Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told 400 people at the University of Baltimore Law School last night that courts should not use legislative history to interpret laws, that he does not feel any sense of power in the job and that he is sorry the First Amendment required him to sanction burning of the American flag.
"I'm sorry you can burn the flag. I don't like scruffy people burning the flag. It's perfectly awful," Justice Scalia said, referring to the 5-4 decision in 1989 that struck down a Texas flag-burning prohibition.
He said he feels no sense of power sitting on the nation's highest court because he is only one of nine judges and is restricted to literally interpreting the Constitution and the laws that must adhere to it.
"Have you ever been on a committee of nine people? Did you have a feeling of power?" Justice Scalia told a law student, in response to a query during a brief question and answer session.
He added: "I don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm a powerful guy.' I don't feel powerful because I end up doing things that I don't want to do."
Justice Scalia spent most of his talk, as the fifth annual speaker in the law school's Solomon Liss Lecture Series, criticizing the practice by lawyers and judges of using legislative history to decipher the congressional intent behind a law.
Lawyers and judges should limit their arguments to what is written in the statute, he said.
"To talk of legislative intent is, from the outset, ridiculous," he said.
Justice Scalia said the problem is that most senators and members of Congress seldom read the committee reports that make up much of the legislative history before they vote on legislation.
Capital Hill lobbyists also have learned to have reports favorably written so that when the intent of a statute is argued in the courts, it will be interpreted in the lobbyists' favor, he said.
"The potential in such a system for abuse and corruption is obvious," Justice Scalia said.
A native of Trenton, N.J., the 58-year-old jurist grew up in Queens, N.Y., and was the first Italian-American to be named to the Supreme Court when he was selected by former President Ronald Reagan to fill the seat left vacant by retiring Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in 1986.
Justice Scalia taught at the University of Virginia and University of Chicago law schools and worked in the Justice Department in the administration of President Ford before he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., in 1982.