‘Originalist’ Still Relevant After Scalia’s Death

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Photo courtesy Gerlie Collado Actress Jade Wheeler (from left) and criminal defense attorney Mia Yamamoto participate in a post-show conversation after a performance of “The Originalist” at the Pasadena Playhouse on May 4. The conversation was moderated by Pasadena City College history professor Christopher West. 
Photo courtesy Gerlie Collado
Actress Jade Wheeler (from left) and criminal defense attorney Mia Yamamoto participate in a post-show conversation after a performance of “The Originalist” at the Pasadena Playhouse on May 4. The conversation was moderated by Pasadena City College history professor Christopher West.

John Strand’s “The Originalist” has finished its run at Pasadena Playhouse, but the show will go on when it returns to Washington, D.C., this summer.
The three-person act spotlights Associate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his judicial philosophy of ardent originalism. The play debuted before Scalia’s death last year — lead actor Edward Gero even met with Scalia while preparing for the role — and remains as relevant as ever even after President Donald Trump replaced Scalia in his first 100 days.
Accompanying Gero onstage for virtually the entire performance is Cat, his new law clerk who wins the job in the first act after turning the job interview into a legal debate. She is played by Jade Wheeler, whom Gero taught in college.
“For both of us, this was a first, so that was really exciting,” Wheeler said during a brief Q and A session after a performance last week.
The play’s dialogue mostly consists of the back-and-forth between Scalia, who was a polarizing and conservative judge, and Cat, a self-described flaming liberal who turns out to be lesbian. The latter detail becomes pronounced when Cat, who had at that point concealed her sexual orientation, is tasked with crafting the dissent to a Supreme Court decision involving same-sex marriage.
However, unlike the mindless and childish name-calling that has become a pandemic on social media since Trump entered the presidential race, these are arguments that remain respectful and principled, even when they become heated. They rarely become personal, and even then, they’re more centered on the concept of objectivity in legal decisions rather than simple ad hominem.
“He wanted the sparring,” Wheeler said of Scalia. “He wanted the mental tête-à-tête, if you will, and so that’s what was fun for both of us.”
After the introduction of a competing law clerk aspirant, Brad, it becomes abundantly clear that Scalia, despite a reputation for stubbornly holding onto an opinion, vastly preferred a colleague like Cat who would thoughtfully challenge his points of view, as opposed to the echo chamber created by Brad, who was a member of the Scalia-formed Federalist Society.
Indeed, Scalia maintained a friendly relationship with fellow Associate Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg, who is regarded by liberals the way conservatives saw Scalia.
“It’s like these two nerds up here having the most fun in a very serious way,” Wheeler said. “They knew that the points they were arguing were extremely important.”
Joining Wheeler onstage for the post-show discussion was Los Angeles attorney Mia Yamamoto, who readily admitted that being a transgender female minority and having liberal viewpoints put her at odds with the bulk of Scalia’s rulings and opinions.
Again, in keeping with the play’s idea of meeting in the middle and remaining respectful, Yamamoto acknowledged that Scalia was erudite and thoughtful and likely had more objective legal reasoning behind his judicial opinions than most think.
“I do think that the play honestly and accurately depicts the charming and brilliant nature of Justice Scalia’s entire career,” Yamamoto said. “There’s no doubting his scholarly acumen and there’s no doubting his belief and adherence to what I would consider to be fundamentalism.”
In his program statement, playwright Strand explained his thought process in authoring the script was asking why civil discourse had been “replaced by a verbal food fight” and why people become so polarized as to see their political opponents as “demons” and treat them as such.
“What’s interesting, from my point of view, is that it just shows you the collegiality of the Supreme Court, that you can have people who are really at two ends of the spectrum and they can speak to each other and address each other with great respect and actually go after the underlying principles,” Yamamoto said.
Pasadena City College history professor Christopher West ran the Q and A and took several questions from audience members.

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