Supreme Court opens: But first -- Scalia on Satan, Ginsburg on her future

By Cathleen Decker

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- It's the first week of October, which puts the U.S. Supreme Court in focus in a way it almost never is unless chads are hanging — as in the 2000 post-election mess — or the justices are rendering decisions on fraught subjects like gay marriage or Obamacare.

This term, which opened Monday, may extend last year’s run of cases with high political content. The court is expected to reach judgments on campaign finance, abortion, religion and the healthcare plan's contraception rules, among other issues.

As Irving Gornstein, executive director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University’s law school, told The Times’ David G. Savage, the new term "is actually deeper in important cases than either of the last two terms."

The judges have traditionally enjoyed life behind a veil of partial anonymity, as far as widespread details about their private lives and views go. But stories in recent days illuminated two justices — friends, if ideological opposites — Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Scalia, 77, sat for an extensive, lively Q&A with New York magazine; Ginsburg was the subject — though not the most extensive presence — in a Washington Post piece about her traditional venture to the opera in New Mexico before the session begins.

Scalia’s interview drew the most attention, with the polarizing justice opining on all sorts of things in his brash manner.

On his belief in Satan: "You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the devil! It’s in the Gospels! You travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the devil! Most of mankind has believed in the devil, for all of history. Many more intelligent people than you or me have believed in the devil."

On societal changes: "One of the things that upsets me about modern society is the coarseness of manners. You can’t go to a movie, or watch a television show for that matter, without hearing the constant use of the F-word, including, you know, ladies using it. People that I know don’t talk like that! But if you portray it a lot, the society's going to become that way. It’s very sad. And you can’t have a movie or a television show without a nude sex scene, very often having no relation to the plot. I don’t mind it when it is essential to the plot, as it sometimes is. But my goodness! The society that watches that becomes a coarse society."

On his television habits: "I watched 'The Sopranos.' I saw a couple of episodes of 'Mad Men.' I loved 'Seinfeld.' In fact, I got some CDs of 'Seinfeld.' 'Seinfeld' was hilarious. Oh, boy. The Nazi soup kitchen? No soup for you!"

On when he would leave the court: "Oh, I’ll know when I’m not hitting on all eight cylinders."

Ginsburg, 80, appeared more circumspect — or maybe just not as quotable — in the Washington Post piece, in which others made clear their concern over whether she will step down during President Obama's term to allow the Democratic president to appoint her successor.

Not so fast, she indicated.

"When I can’t do the job, there will be signs," Ginsburg said, then referred to a justice who had hearing difficulties before his departure. "I’ve had no loss of hearing yet. But who knows when it could happen? So all I can say is what I’ve already said: At my age, you take it year by year."

She also dismissed the idea that 2016 would bring a change in the party controlling the White House and, thus, court appointments.

"I think it’s going to be another Democratic president," Ginsburg said, sounding more like a political handicapper than a robed justice. "The Democrats do fine in presidential elections; their problem is they can’t get out the vote in the midterm elections."