On the Death of a Controversial Judge

William Hogarth, "The Judges"

William Hogarth, “The Judges”


My library book group this week is discussing Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers (1857), and I couldn’t help but read the opening chapter in light of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death over the weekend. The question is how long should people pause after a person’s death before considering the political implications.

In the case of Justice Scalia, people “wasted” hardly any time. Ted Cruz was declaring within two hours that President Obama shouldn’t be allowed to nominate a successor, and the rest of the pack followed soon after. At least some people had the decency to acknowledge the grief of Scalia’s wife and friends in a first paragraph before turning to politics in the second.

The situation isn’t exactly the same in Barchester Towers but there is a similar divided consciousness. The bishop of Barchester is dying and his son, Archdeacon Grantly, will be named his successor if the current ministry stays in power. The ministry is tottering, however. Grantly, of course, can’t wish that his father will die quickly, just as no one should have been wishing for the death of Scalia. On the other hand, it would be most convenient if the end were to happen soon:

The ministry were to be out within five days: his father was to be dead within—no, he rejected that view of the subject. The ministry were to be out, and the diocese might probably be vacant at the same period. There was much doubt as to the names of the men who were to succeed to power, and a week must elapse before a cabinet was formed. Would not vacancies be filled by the outgoing men during this week? Dr. Grantly had a kind of idea that such would be the case but did not know, and then he wondered at his own ignorance on such a question.

He tried to keep his mind away from the subject, but he could not. The race was so very close, and the stakes were so very high. He then looked at the dying man’s impassive, placid face. There was no sign there of death or disease; it was something thinner than of yore, somewhat grayer, and the deep lines of age more marked; but, as far as he could judge, life might yet hang there for weeks to come. 

Grantly, who is over 50, knows that this is his last chance to become a bishop. Fortunately, love trumps ambition after he asks himself whether he in fact longs for his father’s death:

The effort was a salutary one, and the question was answered in a moment. The proud, wishful, worldly man sank on his knees by the bedside and, taking the bishop’s hand within his own, prayed eagerly that his sins might be forgiven him.

The drama isn’t over, however. Grantly’s father-in-law enters, they share a warm embrace, and at that moment the bishop dies. Now the question is how fast can Grantly switch from properly observing the death to telegraphing the news to the ministry in an attempt to assure the appointment:

“You cannot but rejoice that it is over,” said Mr. Harding, still consoling his friend. The archdeacon’s mind, however, had already traveled from the death chamber to the closet of the prime minister. He had brought himself to pray for his father’s life, but now that that life was done, minutes were too precious to be lost. It was now useless to dally with the fact of the bishop’s death—useless to lose perhaps everything for the pretense of a foolish sentiment.

But how was he to act while his father-in-law stood there holding his hand? How, without appearing unfeeling, was he to forget his father in the bishop—to overlook what he had lost, and think only of what he might possibly gain?

Mr. Harding, who has been affected by Grantly’s grief, is startled by how quickly the archdeacon shifts into business mode. Suddenly Grantly is writing a telegraph message and commissioning him to deliver it. Harding is also startled to discover that the message, with a calculated pragmatism, has been written in his name:

Mr. Harding felt very much like an errand-boy, and also felt that he was called on to perform his duties as such at rather an unseemly time, but he said nothing, and took the slip of paper and the proffered coin.

“But you’ve put my name into it, Archdeacon.”

“Yes,” said the other, “there should be the name of some clergyman, you know, and what name so proper as that of so old a friend as yourself? The earl won’t look at the name, you may be sure of that; but my dear Mr. Harding, pray don’t lose any time.”

At this point Trollope, who knows how to build a scene to achieve maximum effect, reveals some new information:

Mr. Harding got as far as the library door on his way to the station, when he suddenly remembered the news with which he was fraught when he entered the poor bishop’s bedroom. He had found the moment so inopportune for any mundane tidings, that he had repressed the words which were on his tongue, and immediately afterwards all recollection of the circumstance was for the time banished by the scene which had occurred.

“But, Archdeacon,” said he, turning back, “I forgot to tell you—the ministry are out.”

“Out!” ejaculated the archdeacon, in a tone which too plainly showed his anxiety and dismay, although under the circumstances of the moment he endeavored to control himself

In other words, all Grantly’s internal struggles have been for naught. He never does become a bishop, prompting Trollope to reflect upon the vanity of human wishes and earthly ambition:

We must beg to be allowed to draw a curtain over the sorrows of the archdeacon as he sat, somber and sad at heart, in the study of his parsonage at Plumstead Episcopi. On the day subsequent to the dispatch of the message he heard that the Earl of –––– had consented to undertake the formation of a ministry, and from that moment he knew that his chance was over. Many will think that he was wicked to grieve for the loss of episcopal power, wicked to have coveted it, nay, wicked even to have thought about it, in the way and at the moments he had done so.

Trollope himself forgives such human frailty, however:

With such censures I cannot profess that I completely agree. The nolo episcopari [the ceremonial “I do not wish to be a bishop” that appointees are expected to utter], though still in use, is so directly at variance with the tendency of all human wishes, that it cannot be thought to express the true aspirations of rising priests in the Church of England. A lawyer does not sin in seeking to be a judge, or in compassing his wishes by all honest means. A young diplomat entertains a fair ambition when he looks forward to be the lord of a first-rate embassy; and a poor novelist, when he attempts to rival Dickens or rise above Fitzjames, commits no fault, though he may be foolish. Sydney Smith truly said that in these recreant days we cannot expect to find the majesty of St. Paul beneath the cassock of a curate. If we look to our clergymen to be more than men, we shall probably teach ourselves to think that they are less, and can hardly hope to raise the character of the pastor by denying to him the right to entertain the aspirations of a man.

Our archdeacon was worldly—who among us is not so? He was ambitious—who among us is ashamed to own that “last infirmity of noble minds!”…[H]e certainly did desire to play first fiddle; he did desire to sit in full lawn sleeves among the peers of the realm; and he did desire, if the truth must out, to be called “My lord” by his reverend brethren.

How one feels about Scalia’s death depends on one’s ambitions for the nation. Republicans wish it had occurred after the Democrats had tottered and Democrats are pleased that it happened on their watch. We are most of us Archdeacon Grantlys, especially when, as is currently the case, the stakes are so very high.

We must, however, hold on to our humanity. Wishing for someone to die hollows out our own humanity.

On the other hand: Because Supreme Court justices have a lifetime tenure, we have been put in the situation of seeing death as the only means of changing the political balance on the court. A remedy would be to limit judges to 18-year appointments, with new appointments made every two years.

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