March 1, 2016 / 10:42 PM / in 3 years

U.S. Supreme Court justices heap warmth, wit on Scalia

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At a deeply personal, at times amusing, memorial service for Antonin Scalia on Tuesday, Justice Clarence Thomas recalled that the two ardent conservatives shared many “buck each other up” chats at the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Too many,” Thomas said to laughter, as he and other speakers paid tribute to Scalia in a chandeliered ballroom at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.

Scalia, a three-decade veteran of America’s highest court, died at age 79 on Feb. 13. His death left the court without its most prominent conservative voice and triggered a political fight over the Republican-led Senate’s refusal to consider anyone Democratic President Barack Obama might choose as Scalia’s successor.

Tuesday’s memorial, organized by Scalia’s family, drew about 500 people. Three of his nine children offered remembrances, painting a picture of a patriarch who was demanding yet also ready to break out in song or drop to the floor to play.

All eight remaining Supreme Court justices attended. Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg offered formal tributes.

“Clarence, you’ve got to hear this,” Thomas said, mimicking Scalia’s booming voice and eagerness to share a draft opinion.

Then Scalia would declare, as Thomas repeated with gusto, “It is really good.” The two were ideological soul mates, believing the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted in its 18th Century context. That often put them on the losing side of cases.

Scalia was always ready to do battle. Thomas said that as he sat between Scalia and liberal Justice Stephen Breyer on the bench during oral arguments, the two would pass notes back and forth.

Becoming more somber and choking back emotion, Thomas, who joined the court in 1991, spoke of the bond arising from their shared Roman Catholic faith and Jesuit education: “We walked together for a quarter century.”

The service was held a day after Thomas ended a decade of self-imposed silence during court arguments.

Ginsburg, a liberal justice, noted that despite their different views, they became dear friends, traveling abroad and sharing a passion for opera. Scalia brought her roses on her birthday, she said.

She said his criticism could improve her draft opinions. Yet she suggested he knew not to tell her to “get over it” after the conservatives carried the day in the Bush v. Gore ruling. That became Scalia’s stock response to critics of the ruling that handed the 2000 presidential election to Republican George W. Bush.

When people asked Scalia how they could be friends, she recalled that Scalia said he attacked ideas, not people, remarking, “Some very good people have some very bad ideas.”

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