Antonin Scalia: his life and legacy(Read article summary)
The Supreme Court Justice's iconic originalist readings divided Americans, but his intelligence, charm, and knack for separating life from work won him surprising friends.
Larry Downing/ Reuters/ File
US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whose fiery originalist readings helped shape landmark Supreme Court decisions and American legal thought, was found dead in Big Bend, Texas, on Saturday, prompting lawyers and politicians to remember a man whose friendships spanned political differences, even as his conservative decisions deepened them.
"He will no doubt be remembered as one of the most consequential judges and thinkers to serve on the Supreme Court," President Barack Obama said. The White House ordered all federal buildings flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of Justice Scalia. The Justice, who was 79, was found dead at a resort after being last seen the previous evening.
During his 29 years on the Supreme Court, Scalia's originalist interpretation of the Constitution, which held that the writers' original intentions should be honored, rather than interpreted through a modern lens, went from a niche philosophy to a mainstay of conservative thought.
At the time Ronald Reagan appointed him to the bench in 1986, originalism, also called textualism, "was not even worth talking about in serious academic circles," Scalia told an interviewer in 2013.
Today, his doctrine that "Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn't change," has been embraced by fellow social conservatives, in particular, who often do not believe Constitutional rights should be extended to groups or situations the Founding Fathers did not envision: gay marriage or abortion, for example.
At other times, Scalia's readings saw "special" protections where other Justices saw "equal" protections. In 2013's Shelby County v. Holder, he joined a majority in striking down a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he referred to as "racial entitlement."
A fierce critic of "evolving" views of the Constitution, Scalia lambasted many decisions for a supposed activist bent. In a furious dissent against the majority ruling to outlaw capital punishment for minors, for instance, he wrote that "The Court thus proclaims itself sole arbiter of our Nation’s moral standards – and in the course of discharging that awesome responsibility purports to take guidance from the views of foreign courts and legislatures," alluding to other developed countries' similar laws.
His strong support for the death penalty, including for criminals under age 18 and the mentally disabled, was a rare exception to his general support for the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, including views on abortion and same-sex relationships.
Scalia's acerbic, anything-but-dry dissents earned equally fervent admirers and critics, often split down ideological lines. Objecting to the Supreme Court's ruling to extend gay marriage rights throughout the country, Scalia called the decision "a threat to American democracy," believing it should have been a legislative decision, not a judicial one; he also wrote that he would rather "put his head in a bag" than join the majority in the case. Fellow conservatives were not safe from his legal lashings: a majority decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, for instance, was deemed "pure applesauce."
If you happened to agree with Scalia, however, reading his dissents was "like uncorking champagne," the Atlantic's Matt Ford wrote. And the intellect and wit between barbs, along with his animated questions from the bench, solidified Scalia's legacy as one of the 20th century's most influential justices.
"A lion of American law has left the stage, and it is up to all of us – every American – to keep our national constitutional dialogue as lively and as learned as he left it," Attorney General Loretta Lynch wrote of his death.
On the bench, many of Scalia's firmest convictions were at odds with typically liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Yet the conservative firebrand and the more reserved liberal icon enjoyed a deep friendship, socializing with their families, taking trips together, and frequently visiting the theater – where their unlikely bond is now the subject of its own opera, "Scalia/Ginsburg: A (Gentle) Parody of Operatic Proportions."
"I disagreed with most of what he said, but I loved the way he said it," Judge Ginsburg told the Los Angeles Times in June.
"Call us the odd couple," Scalia joked to George Washington University students. "What's not to like, except her view on the law?"
That seeming ability to separate life and work left Scalia with friends across the political spectrum, who, although they may have feared his criticism, appreciated his intelligence and charm. He persuaded Justice Elena Kagan to go hunting with him, and hoped his sometimes breezily provocative ideas and writings would inspire future generations of lawyers.
Antonin Gregory Scalia was born in Trenton, N.J., in 1936, the only son of a Catholic first- and second-generation Italian-American couple. After attending a Jesuit high school and becoming valedictorian of his Georgetown University class in 1957, he studied at Harvard Law School, where he edited the school's influential Review.
In 1960, he married Maureen McCarthy. The couple have nine children.
He practiced and taught law before serving in the Ford administration's Justice Department, and was appointed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1982 by Ronald Reagan. In 1986, he was appointed and unanimously confirmed to an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, after two decades under liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren.