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Henningsen: Replacing Scalia

Ever since Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death, politicians and the press have been speculating relentlessly about his “replacement” on the Supreme Court. The use of “replacement” reminds me of a story about Thomas Jefferson after his appointment to follow Benjamin Franklin as United States Minister to France. Frenchmen asked, “So, you are Dr. Franklin’s replacement?”  And Jefferson invariably responded, “No one can replace him, sir; I am only his successor.”

 Jefferson got it right.  Here’s the definition of “successor”, as found in the Oxford English Dictionary:

“one who succeeds another in an office, dignity, function, or position.”

And here’s the OED on “replacement”:

“the act or process of replacing in various senses, the act of being replaced.”

Note the difference:  a successor is a person; replacement is an act. One justice succeeds another; we replace a light bulb.

Justice Scalia was a careful writer with deep respect for correct use of the language and strong commitment to the enduring vitality of original meaning. No doubt he would have agreed with Jefferson.  And, as a man of considerable ego, he might not have liked the notion of being replaced like a bar of soap or a car muffler.

But here’s the difficulty.  Unlike Scalia’s Constitution, which he insisted meant precisely what it did when it was framed, and no more, the English language is constantly changing.  And even though they’re still mis-used as synonyms, the meaning and usage of  “successor” and “replacement” have altered too.

 “Successor” has morphed well beyond its original meaning of simply coming next in a position or office by means of descent, election, or appointment.  To many of us a successor is not just someone who physically follows another, but one who inherits and carries on the first person’s mission, purpose, or ideology.  

And we’ve become quite comfortable using “replacement” in relation to people as well as things. And we often imply that when we replace someone, we may do so not necessarily with another version of the same thing, but with something different – perhaps very different.

Such modern understandings of these terms often affect political discourse. For, let’s be clear: conservatives yearn for a successor to Scalia; while liberals have long believed he ought to be replaced.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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