SUPREME COURT NOTEBOOK: Sitting out the speech

Wednesday - 2/13/2013, 7:06am EST

MARK SHERMAN
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- While his colleagues got ready to go to the Capitol, Justice Antonin Scalia sat on a stage across town and held forth about why, for the 16th consecutive year, he would not be joining them for the State of the Union.

He doesn't go when a Democrat is president. He stays away when the president is Republican.

"It has turned into a childish spectacle. I don't want to be there to lend dignity to it," Scalia said, with a certain amount of mischief.

The 76-year-old justice has previously made clear his disdain for the event, but Tuesday may have been the first time he did so at nearly the same time as the speech.

The occasion was a talk sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates and moderated by National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg, one of many public appearances by the justices during their winter recess. They will meet in private on Friday and return to the bench on Tuesday.

Lest anyone think the timing of his talk was anything other than a coincidence, Scalia tried to put those thoughts to rest.

"I didn't set this up tonight just to upstage the president," he said. "The State of the Union is not something I mark on my calendar, like Easter or Yom Kippur."

Scalia said the justices in attendance inevitably keep their eyes on the chief justice, who decides when it is appropriate to applaud.

If the president says the United States is a great country, clap away, he said. But no justice can clap "if it's anything anybody can disagree with," Scalia said.

Prodded by Totenberg, Scalia also commented on the hunting ability of Justice Elena Kagan, who has joined Scalia to shoot quail, pheasant and larger animals.

Last year, on a trip to Wyoming, they had a license to go after antelope and mule deer. But there were none to be found.

Instead, "she ended up killing a white-tailed doe, which she could have done in my driveway" in suburban Virginia, Scalia said.

He said Kagan, who never handled a gun before joining the court, is just a beginner, but "she dropped that doe in just one shot."

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In the three weeks since the court last met, Justice Sonia Sotomayor has danced the salsa in the Supreme Court's lawyers lounge with Univision's Jorge Ramos, visited her high school in the Bronx with Oprah Winfrey and matched wits with Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central. She has crisscrossed the country in a tour to promote her memoir, "My Beloved World," and signed books for overflow crowds.

The effort seems to be paying off. The book rocketed to the top of The New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction when it debuted in mid-January. And "My Beloved World" will be at No. 1 for the third straight week in the paper's Feb. 17 Sunday book review section.

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Justice Clarence Thomas also had a best-seller when his memoir, "My Grandfather's Son," was published in 2007. The book told a somewhat similar story of Thomas' rise from poverty in Georgia.

But one area where the justices disagree is affirmative action. Sotomayor defends the program -- under which she gained admission to Princeton University and Yale Law School -- as needed to get disadvantaged students into elite institutions. She said in her book that she may have been given a break but that her record of success in college and law school showed she belonged.

Thomas, on the other hand, has become a strong opponent of affirmative action and says he felt stigmatized by the racial preference that also helped him get into Yale.

In an interview on National Public Radio last month, Sotomayor addressed the difference. "As much as I know Clarence, admire him and have grown to appreciate him, I have never ever focused on the negative of things. I always look at the positive. And I know one thing: If affirmative action opened the doors for me at Princeton, once I got in, I did the work. I proved myself worthy. So, I don't look at how the door opened."

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Thomas stopped in at Harvard Law School recently, and the school this week posted a 70-minute video of the justice's conversation with law school dean Martha Minow and hundreds of students.

In it, Thomas reveals that he was still repaying student loans after he joined the Supreme Court in 1991. "I made my final payments on my student loans my third term on the court," he said.