-By Greg Stohr
May 15, 2012- In January, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia accused the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of “high-handedness.” He was just getting warmed up.
Over the next 3 1/2 months, Scalia asked whether federal immigration policy was designed to “please Mexico,” fired off 12 questions and comments in 15 minutes at a government lawyer in a case involving overtime pay, and dismissed part of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s defense of President Barack Obama’s health-care law as “extraordinary.”
Scalia’s tone this year, particularly in cases involving the Obama administration, is raising new criticism over the temperament of a justice who has always relished the give-and- take of the Supreme Court’s public sessions. Some lawyers say Scalia, a 1986 appointee of Republican President Ronald Reagan, is crossing the line that separates tough scrutiny from advocacy.
“His questions have been increasingly confrontational,” said Charles Fried, a Harvard Law School professor who served as Reagan’s top Supreme Court advocate. While the justice has always asked “pointed” questions, in the health-care case “he came across much more like an advocate.”
Scalia’s approach is fueling the perception that the biggest cases this term, including health care, may be influenced by politics, rather than the legal principles that he and other justices say should be their guide. A Bloomberg News poll in March showed that 75 percent of Americans think the court’s decision on the 2010 law will be based more on politics than on constitutional merit.
“Someone who had just tuned into the health-care argument might get the impression that the court is a much more partisan institution than it actually is,” said David Strauss, a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago Law School.
The week after the health-insurance argument, Obama showed a willingness to make the court an issue in his re-election campaign, saying a ruling striking down the law would be “judicial activism” by “an unelected group of people.” The court will probably rule by the end of June.
Scalia, 76, declined to comment for this story, said Kathy Arberg, a Supreme Court spokeswoman.
The justice has never shied away from controversy. He once wrote that a colleague’s reasoning in an abortion case “cannot be taken seriously.” When the court expanded the rights of prisoners at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he dissented by saying the ruling “will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.”