Following one of the most historic U.S. Supreme Court terms in recent memory, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin G. Scalia was found dead of apparent natural causes within a west Texas resort—leading to equal parts shock, contemplation and political foreshadowing.
Justice Scalia had been a permanent fixture on the U.S. Supreme Court since the days of Ronald Reagan, making him second in seniority after Chief Justice John G. Roberts. Lauded as a staunch “originalist” and “textualist” where the U.S. Constitution was concerned, Scalia formed the keystone of the Court’s conservative wing, often lambasting the “living document” approach to constitutional analysis. Here’s a look at Justice Scalia’s remarkable career.
The Nixon and Ford years
Antonin “Nino” Scalia was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1936, the only child of Italian immigrant parents who both worked in the education sector. A self-described scholastic over-achiever, Scalia graduated as valedictorian of his high school class. His teachers described the 17-year-old as an “archconservative Catholic” and simply “way above everybody else.”
As he started his law career in earnest, Scalia entered private practice at a prestigious Cleveland law firm, followed by a four-year stint teaching law at the University of Virginia. From there, Scalia began working as general counsel for the federal Office of Telecommunications Policy, where he became embroiled in the investigation of the Watergate scandal that eventually led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Scalia remained onboard under the new president, Gerald Ford often handling the administration’s perpetual conflicts with Congress over various privacy and freedom-of-information issues. In his only appearance before the Supreme Court as a litigator, Scalia successfully argued on behalf of the United States in Alfred Dunhill of London v. Cuba, securing a victory for the U.S.
In 1977, Scalia took a position as a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, leading to his role as the initial faculty advisor for the school’s burgeoning Federalist Society.
D.C. Circuit Court tenure leads to nomination
Five years later, Scalia was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 The D.C. Circuit is generally considered one of the most prestigious circuit courts in the United States.
Using this appointment as a springboard, Scalia was placed on a short list to replace a Supreme Court justice should one step down from the bench during Reagan’s tenure as president. In 1986, Chief Justice Warren Berger informed the administration of his intention to retire, prompting the promotion of then-associate Justice William Rehnquist and the nomination of Scalia as the newest associate member of the Court. After a surprisingly brief, non-contentious Senate hearing and a unanimous 98-0 vote, Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court and took his seat on the bench on September 27, 1986.
Despite a perception from many onlookers that he was overly emotional on the subject, Scalia maintained a steadfast adherence to principles of federalism and the separation of the branches of government, reminding the Court of his position in hundreds of opinions and dissents across his 30-year career.
He maintained staunch opposition, for instance, to the concept of judicial review, as originally set forth in the 1800’s case of Marbury v. Madison. Scalia wasted no opportunity to criticize the perceived overreach of the Supreme Court in interpreting congressional policy, leading to his role as the quintessential constitutional originalist on the nation’s highest court.
Scalia was dedicated to opposing the concept of constitutional malleability, scoffing at the idea that the Constitution was a living document, adjustable to changes in cultural and societal norms. Famously describing it as “dead, dead, dead,” Scalia rendered a number of opinions and dissents based on the premise that the Constitution says what it says. In other words, the appropriate channel for the creation of new laws and policy is the legislature, not the courts.
In applying these principles to landmark cases, Scalia issued several scathing dissents over issues concerning individual rights, rights to privacy and affirmative action, to name a few. For instance, on the issue of reproductive rights, Scalia remarked that “[t]he States may, if they wish, permit abortion on demand, but the Constitution does not require them to do so.” Similarly, Scalia held fast to principles of originalism on issues including gun control, criminal procedure and corporate rights.
While the political implications of Scalia’s departure from the Court remain to be seen, President Obama is now positioned to put forth a left-leaning replacement for the storied jurist, potentially tilting the Court’s philosophical balance and creating a liberal majority for the first time since the Warren Court that reigned from 1953 to 1969.
Scalia stood as the torchbearer of the Court’s originalist, conservative composure, describing himself as distinguishable from other conservative Justices who are “far more willing to reverse past precedent.” More succinctly, Justice Scalia recently remarked “I am a textualist. I am an originalist. I am not a nut….” And that’s him, in a nutshell.
Image of Justices Anthony Kennedy ’61, Antonin Scalia ’60, Harry Blackmun ’32 and David Souter ’66, courtesy of harvard.edu
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