Nora Anne Miller, '14, was already seated in the Jepson Alumni Center's overflow room, waiting to watch Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's address on a closed-circuit television, when Speech Center Director Linda Hobgood came to find her.
Hobgood told Miller that her name had been selected from among all students in attendance to join Justice Scalia for lunch at the head table. Miller was flabbergasted.
"Once I was reseated, one of the guests at the table told me that Linda Hobgood had given up her own seat at the head table so that a student could have it," said Miller. "She really wanted this program to be all about the students."
Hobgood, who has worked at the University for 20 years and directed the center for 15 years, has organized three Orator in Residence Programs since 2001. The program extends the center's mission by inviting orators who are widely recognized as eloquent in and beyond their professional communities to visit campus and give a public lecture.
Past orators in residence were Reid Buckley, author, playwright and founder of the Buckley School for Public Expression; and Dana Gioia, internationally acclaimed poet and recent chair of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Miller is enrolled in Hobgood's first-year seminar, The White House Said Today: Rhetoric of the Executive Branch.
"Ms. Hobgood's class covers the rhetoric of presidents and cabinet members and the roles first ladies have played," said Miller. "When I came to Richmond, I thought I wanted to major in business, but this class has made me want to explore a major in rhetoric and communication studies."
Considering the topic Miller has immersed herself in this semester, it's no wonder she was excited to wind up sitting at Scalia's table.
Scalia's talk was titled "Do Words Matter?" and addressed three ways in which words can be twisted to mean something far different than that for which they were originally intended.
The meaning of words can change over time. As an example, Scalia put forth the word "nimrod." In the Old Testament, Nimrod is a great hunter. But thanks to Bugs Bunny, who frequently referred to his adversary Elmer Fudd as a nimrod, the word changed meaning within a generation and came to mean "idiot" instead.
"Unfortunately, lots more people have watched Bugs Bunny than have read the Old Testament," Scalia said.
The second way to twist words, according to Scalia, is to take them to mean something that they simply do not mean. For instance, Scalia summarized, the Endangered Species Act forbids the "taking" of an endangered animal. Out West, this his been translated to mean that large tracks of land have been set aside from lumbering to provide habitats for the spotted owl. The Environmental Protection Agency has interpreted "taking" to mean the taking away of habitat, while a hunter would interpret "taking" quite differently.
The third way we twist words, said Scalia, is to give a vague or general term a meaning it was not intended to have by the legislature or assembly that adopted it. As one example, Scalia highlighted the word "liberty." Some of the liberties the Supreme Court has found to be protected, such as abortion or sodomy, are not, Scalia said, liberties that would have been interpreted as such when the Constitution was written.
Arguing against a 'living Constitution,' Scalia said, "When you allow a court to give words of the past meaning, you limit democracy. You allow nine 'hotshot' lawyers to rule the country."
Scalia argues that those who wish to use the Constitution to affect social justice should look elsewhere. The constitution is intended to provide rigidity, not change.
"If you don't like the death penalty, fine. Abolish it. Pass a law. Change your mind? Put it back in. Anyone who says, 'My constitution provides a flexible system of government,' should think again. It's a law, for Pete's sake. It's not a living organism…for flexibility, all you need is a legislature and a ballot box," Scalia said.
Scalia concluded, "Do words matter? For a democracy, they matter enormously. Under the guise of interpreting the constitution, judges now wield an enormous amount of political power. The selection process is no longer about picking good lawyers. People think, 'If these people are rewriting the Constitution, we ought to be interested in whether this person will write a constitution I like.' It's like having a mini-Constitutional Convention every time we have a nominee.
“I would rather have people rewrite the Constitution than have it rewritten by nine judges.”
After the speech, Miller said, "In our first-year seminar, we examine words closely. I thought it was interesting to hear how Justice Scalia examines the Constitution and how everyone interprets it so differently."
Hobgood presented Scalia with a copy of the "Lexicon," an "intellectually abridged" dictionary written by former Richmond student and speech consultant Larry Witkos, '98, who lost his life to pediatric leukemia just two weeks shy of his commencement ceremony.
The dictionary was reprinted and bound at the suggestion of his roommates, who stipulated that it be presented on special occasions to individuals who Witkos would have admired.
"Each orator in residence has been a recipient of the "Lexicon," and while I think that would have made Larry happy, those of you who remember him would surely agree that nothing quite compares with today. As I commented to a dear student, "If Larry could have had just one day back here at Richmond, this just might have been that day," Hobgood said.
At the end of the event, Miller pulled her cell phone out of her purse. She had to make a call — her parents were never going to believe her when she told them with whom she'd just had lunch.