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Scalia's GestureGate

Was it an obscene gesture or a dismissive flip of the hand? As Justice Antonin Scalia left a Catholic Lawyers' Guild Mass in Boston on Sunday, a Boston Herald reporter asked him about public criticism of his openly celebrating his conservative Roman Catholic beliefs. His response, the Herald reported, was to say, "You know what I say to those people?" and then flick his hand under his chin in what the Herald described as "an obscene gesture." But was it obscene?

No, Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg tells The Boston Globe. "He did make a gesture," she said. "It was a hand off the chin gesture meant to be dismissive, and not at all obscene." The Globe added this explanation:

"The sign, made by placing the back of the fingers underneath one's chin and flicking them forward, is used by some Italians to express irritation."

The Associated Press likewise reports that the gesture was not one that gave prominence to the middle finger. AP provides this lesson in Italian culture:

"The sign he used in Boston is frequently used by Italians to express displeasure with someone -- from mild to deep irritation. It is done by cupping the hand under the chin and flicking the fingers like a backward wave."

Well, what do bloggers make of this? Wonkette initially expressed disbelief that Scalia had "flipped someone the bird with bits of the Eucharist still between his teeth." But in a later clarification, she included an illustration of the Italian hand gesture, and conceded that it was not a "full-fledged flipping of the proverbial bird. But it still wasn't exactly the most polite of actions."

At the legal blog f/k/a ..., David Giacalone -- no stranger to Italian-American customs -- draws a parallel to the Court's decision earlier this week not to hear an appeal involving the use of pit bulls in lawyer advertising:

"Where were the Dignity Police when we really needed them? Justice Antonin Scalia apparently couldn't bother to act to protect pitbull lawyer ads, but he's certainly willing to act like a tasteless gumbah in public -- and right outside of a church."

"Gumbah," by the way, is another  Italian cultural expression. Giacalone continues:

"Scalia might want you to believe that his little Sicilian chin action was harmless, but a lot depends on the attitude displayed along with the gesture. [Both of my sainted grandmothers could definitely make it look obscene.]"

Not meaning to sound crabby, Maryland blogger Crablaw says:

"[I]t would seem that no religious, political or jurisprudential message is appropriately conveyed by a one-finger salute on a church's steps. Just my opinion. More than the precise scene of the 'Sicilian' one-finger salute, however, is the fact that it was given at all to litigants who might suggest that a judge recuse himself. Logically, the fact that Scalia gave a crude gesture to an entire class of litigants is evidence of his partiality, which is the strongest ground for -- you guessed it -- recusal!"

John Wirenius asks, "How do you solve a problem like Scalia?" He goes on:

"Justice Scalia has been, in many ways, an ornament to the Court -- pressing a more consistent, less political version of "originalism" than the openly partisan Robert Bork, building a jurisprudence that while I vigorously disagree with, I can respect. Since 2000, he has been more and more partisan, less of a judge and more of an advocate for engrafting his own moral code to the Constitution. But worse, of late, he seems to be more of an embarrassment."

Scalia is not without his defenders. At, Michael Krauss says the Boston Herald reporter "was clearly harassing" the jurist. He suggests:

"Maybe some cultural diversity training is in order for the over-sensitive Herald reporter. And maybe an apology from the paper itself."

Perhaps the greater concern is that this story, whatever your take on it, will further diminish the public's view of the legal profession. As Workbench blogger Rogers Cadenhead suggests, noting that Scalia was on his way out of a special Mass for lawyers and politicians:

"I didn't know the Catholic Church was singling out these groups for extra attention, but it makes a lot of sense."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 28, 2006 at 10:35 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)


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