Justice Antonin Scalia, 1936-2016: A Tribute

On Saturday, February 13, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. Justice Scalia was found in his room at a Texas ranch, where he had attended a quail hunt and a private party the previous day. Reports indicate that Justice Scalia died peacefully in his sleep. He was 79.

It is no exaggeration to state that the United States has lost a one-of-a-kind conservative icon.

Antonin Gregory Scalia was born on March 11, 1936 in Trenton, New Jersey. Scalia’s intellectual brilliance was readily apparent during his early years, as he was the valedictorian both of his high school class and of the 1953 graduating class at Georgetown University. Scalia went on to attend Harvard Law School, graduating in 1960, magna cum laude, as a member of the Harvard Law Review. Scalia’s distinguished legal career included experience at law firms, professorships at multiple law schools, and service in the executive branch of the federal government. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia to a judgeship on the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. After serving on that court for four years, Scalia was appointed by President Reagan to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court of the United States in 1986. The Senate voted to confirm Scalia by a 98-0 margin. 

During his nearly 30-year tenure on the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia developed a well-deserved reputation as a passionate defender of the United States Constitution. Justice Scalia was known for his originalist approach to constitutional interpretation. (Originalists interpret the Constitution by analyzing the meaning of the text at the time the Constitution became effective.) Justice Scalia routinely argued against the prevailing liberal view of the Constitution as a living document, susceptible to new interpretations based upon the changing norms of American society. For conservatives, Justice Scalia’s ongoing battle against activist judges’ misuse of the Constitution to promote abortion, homosexuality, and gun control made him a hero. A devout Roman Catholic, Justice Scalia also defended the central role of Christianity in American life. National Review remembers him this way: “With his brilliance, his tenacity, and his devastating wit, Justice Scalia transformed the terms of debate in American constitutional law. Under his commanding intellectual influence, constitutional discourse both on and off the Court took an originalist turn… Scalia was equally ready to advance his views in books, articles, and public appearances — and to spar cheerfully with those who disagreed with him.”

Justice Scalia was known not only for his originalist views, but also for his unique writing style. Justice Scalia’s writing—particularly in dissenting opinions—often aggressively criticized opposing views of a matter, but did so in a readable, memorable, and persuasive manner. The editors of National Review call Justice Scalia “[by] far the most eloquent and effective writer of judicial opinions in the past 60 years of Supreme Court history.” For example, in United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S.________(2013), Justice Scalia dissented from the Court’s decision to hold a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. In the closing paragraph of his dissent, the Justice wrote the following words:

In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one’s political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today’s Court can handle. Too bad. A reminder that disagreement over something so fundamental as marriage can still be politically legitimate would have been a fit task for what in earlier times was called the judicial temperament. We might have covered ourselves with honor today, by promising all sides of this debate that it was theirs to settle and that we would respect their resolution. We might have let the People decide.

But that the majority will not do. Some will rejoice in today’s decision, and some will despair at it; that is the nature of a controversy that matters so much to so many. But the Court has cheated both sides, robbing the winners of an honest victory, and the losers of the peace that comes from a fair defeat. We owed both of them better. I dissent.

United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S.________(2013) (Scalia, J., dissenting).

Justice Scalia’s strong beliefs did not stop him from striking up an unlikely friendship with his most liberal Supreme Court colleague: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Known to Justice Scalia as “Ruthie,” Justice Ginsburg remembers Justice Scalia as her “best buddy.” Despite their profound ideological differences, the two enjoyed a shared love of opera, and their families vacationed together on multiple occasions.

Justice Clarence Thomas—a frequent ally of Justice Scalia’s on the Court—remembers Justice Scalia as “‘a good man; a wonderful husband who loved his wife and his family; a man of strong faith; a towering intellect; a legal giant; and a dear, dear friend. In every case, he gave it his all to get the broad principles and the small details right… It is hard to imagine the Court without my friend. I will miss him beyond all measure.’”

Justice Scalia is survived by his wife, Maureen, by their nine children, and by 36 grandchildren. Americans are a freer people because of Justice Scalia’s life and work. May he rest in peace.