Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dies at 79; ardent conservative fought liberalism’s tide
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, an eloquent conservative who used a sharp intellect, a barbed wit and a zest for verbal combat to resist what he saw as the tide of modern liberalism, has died. He was 79.
Scalia died while on a hunting trip in Texas, according to a statement issued Saturday by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. The death was later confirmed by the U.S. Marshals Service and the Supreme Court.
Scalia was a guest at the Cibolo Creek Ranch, a 30,000-acre retreat of antebellum forts in the Big Bend area of West Texas owned by Houston millionaire John Poindexter.
Scalia had gone to his room Friday night and was found dead Saturday after he did not appear for breakfast, the Marshals Service said.
At about 2:45 p.m. Saturday, people at the ranch summoned a Catholic priest from Presidio, 30 miles away, to administer last rites to the justice, who was a Catholic. “It appeared as though he had passed away in his sleep,” said Elizabeth O'Hara, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of El Paso.
President Obama paid tribute to Scalia as a “brilliant” jurist who “influenced a generation of judges, lawyers and students.” He said Scalia “will no doubt be remembered as one of the most consequential judges and thinkers to serve on the Supreme Court.”
Scalia was a dominant figure at the court from the day he arrived in 1986, and he could be an intimidating presence for lawyers who had to argue there. He had a deep effect on the law and legal thinking through his Supreme Court opinions and speeches. His sharply worded dissents and caustic attacks on liberal notions were quoted widely, and they had an influence on a generation of young conservatives.
Antonin Scalia, left, with wife Maureen, takes his Supreme Court oath from retiring Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in September 1986.(Charles Tasnadi / Associated Press)
President Reagan announced the Supreme Court nomination of Antonin Scalia, left, in June 1986, after Chief Justice Warren E. Burger decided to retire. At right is Justice William Rehnquist, who became chief justice later that year.(Ron Edmonds / Associated Press)
In this Aug. 6, 1986 file photo, Supreme Court Justice nominee Antonin Scalia attends a Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings in Washington.(Lana Harris / AP)
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia addresses a Northern Virginia Technology Council (NVTC) breakfast December 13, 2006 in McLean, Virginia.(Alex Wong / Getty Images)
Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer (L) and fellow Associate Justice Antonin Scalia testifiy before the House Judiciary Committee’s Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee on Capitol Hill May 20, 2010 in Washington, DC. Breyer and Scalia testified to the subcommittee about the Administrative Conference of the United States.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer (R) and Antonin Scalia (3rd L), escorted by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) (L), and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) (2nd L), arrive at a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee October 5, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The justices testified on “Considering the Role of Judges Under the Constitution of the United States.”(Alex Wong / Getty Images)
Surrounded by security, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia walks October 10, 2005 in the annual Columbus Day Parade in New York City. This is the 61st Columbus Parade which celebrates both the explorer and Italian cultural influence on America.(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia waits during an introduction before speaking at the University of Minnesota as part of the law school’s Stein Lecture series, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)(Jim Mone / AP)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia during a speech on Feb. 10, 2004, at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass.(DENNIS VANDAL / AP)
US Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia in the court’s official photo session on Oct. 8, 2010.(TIM SLOAN / AFP/Getty Images)
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at the Economics Club of New York in February 2016.(PETER FOLEY / EPA)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, playing the role of Chief Justice Melville Weston Fuller, talks to California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, representing part of the counsel for the state of New York, during a re-enactment of the 100-year-old case of Lochner vs New York on Monday, Aug. 29, 2005, at Chapman University in Orange.(SANG H. PARK / AP)
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia after addressing an assembly in front of LSU’s Paul M. Hebert Law Center in Baton Rouge, La., on Oct. 24, 2003.(BILL HABER / AP)
But inside the court, his rigid style of conservatism and derisive jabs directed at his colleagues limited his effectiveness. Scalia himself seemed to relish the role of the angry dissenter.
As a justice, he was the leading advocate for interpreting the Constitution by its original words and meaning, and not in line with contemporary thinking. He said he liked a “dead Constitution,” not a “living” one that evolves with the times.
Reaction from political leaders reflected Scalia’s firm commitment to this philosophy.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) lauded Scalia as “a giant of American jurisprudence” who “almost singlehandedly revived an approach to constitutional interpretation that prioritized the text and original meaning of the Constitution.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) praised the justice as “a brilliant man with a probing mind,” while acknowledging that he “disagreed with him on so many issues.”
Donald Trump, the real estate magnate and reality TV star turned Republican presidential candidate, said Scalia’s “career was defined by his reverence for the Constitution and his legacy of protecting Americans’ most cherished freedoms.”
Former President George W. Bush called Scalia “a towering figure” who “brought intellect, good judgment, and wit to the bench.”
In Scalia’s view, laws can change when voters call for changes, but the Constitution itself should not change through the rulings of judges.
As Scalia saw it, the difficult constitutional questions of recent decades were easy to resolve if viewed through the prism of the late 18th century when the Constitution was written.
“The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state,” Scalia told the American Enterprise Institute in 2012.
If such comments made him sound old, grumpy and out of touch with modern America, Scalia would agree—and see it as a compliment. He said his job was to preserve an “enduring” Constitution.
He also had a comic’s sense of timing. Several law professors studied the transcripts of the court’s oral arguments and confirmed what a court observer would see every day. Scalia’s sarcastic questions and his cut-to-the point comments provoked laughter in the courtroom far more often than any of his colleagues.
In October 2011, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., a former lawyer before the court, marked the 25th anniversary of Scalia’s arrival by saying “the place hasn’t been the same since.”
Before Scalia ascended to the high court in 1986, most of its justices shared the view that the Constitution was a progressive document which promised justice and equality for all. They had interpreted it in the 1960s and 1970s as giving women equal rights -- including a right to abortion -- as forbidding official prayers in public schools, as requiring police to warn criminal suspects of their rights, and for a time, blocking the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment.
Scalia thought none of these decisions was correct. He said these rulings reflected liberal politics more than a faithful reading of the original Constitution. And he voiced his critique year after year, sometimes in angry dissents and sometimes in sarcastic comments directed at his liberal colleagues.
His tone was mournful at times. “Day by day, case by case, [the court] is designing a Constitution for a country that I do not recognize,” he wrote in a 1996 dissent.
He issued thunderous dissents when the court upheld the right to abortion in 1992 and in 2003 when it struck down the sex laws that targeted gays and lesbians. Then, he accused his colleagues of having “largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda … directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct.”
He predicted the ruling would trigger a national debate over same-sex marriage, and he was proved correct. A few months later, the Massachusetts high court became the first to rule that gays and lesbians had an equal right to marry. A decade later, a majority of Americans agreed gays deserved the right to marry.
During his first two decades on the court, Scalia was known mostly for his dissents. He broke with fellow Reagan appointees—Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy—because they refused to overturn the court’s precedents on abortion, school prayer and the Miranda warnings to criminal defendants about their legal rights.
But after Chief Justice William Rehnquist died in 2005 and O’Connor retired a few months later, Scalia took on a new prominence as a leader of the court’s conservative wing. Roberts, the new chief justice who was a generation younger than Scalia, deferred to him and often assigned him to write the court’s opinion in momentous cases.
In what may have been his most important majority opinion, Scalia spoke for the court in 2008 declaring for the first time that the 2nd Amendment gave Americans a right to own a gun for self-defense. A lifelong hunter, Scalia said the “right to bear arms” had been understood as a fundamental right since the American colonies became independent.
Scalia also played a key role in a series of 5-4 decisions that struck down campaign finance laws and said that all Americans—including corporations and unions—had a free-speech right to spend their money on election ads.
Scalia was an old-school traditionalist. He was fiercely determined to fight a rear-guard battle against modern trends. A Catholic, he and his wife Maureen had nine children, and he insisted they go each Sunday to a church with a traditional Latin Mass. On Saturdays, however, Scalia liked nothing better than hiding in a duck blind waiting for unwary birds to fly overhead.
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He was born in Trenton, N.J., on March 11, 1936, the only child of a Sicilian immigrant who became a professor of Romance language at Brooklyn College and a mother who taught elementary school. He was known as “Nino” at home, and he carried the nickname throughout his life.
His family moved to the Queens borough of New York when he was a child. A star student, Scalia won a scholarship to a Jesuit-run military academy in Manhattan, and he recalled for the justices his high school days riding the New York subway carrying a rifle for drill practice. At the time of his Supreme Court appointment, a high school classmate observed: “This kid was a conservative when he was 17 years old. … He was brilliant, way above everybody else.”
However, he was rejected by Princeton University. “I was an Italian kid from Queens, not quite the Princeton type,” he said years later. Instead, he enrolled in Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington and graduated at the top of his class as its valedictorian in 1957. He went on to Harvard Law School and graduated in 1960. In Cambridge, he met and married Maureen McCarthy, a Radcliffe student.
Scalia began his career as a lawyer with the Jones, Day firm in Cleveland, but he switched directions and became a law professor at the University of Virginia in 1967. He joined the Nixon administration in 1971 as a mid-level lawyer, and he became head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in August 1974 just as Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president. In those jobs Scalia won a reputation as being smart, combative and conservative. He also made influential friends, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.
He left the government and returned to teaching law at the University of Chicago when Democrat Jimmy Carter became president in 1977. But after Ronald Reagan’s election, Scalia’s stock soared. He was named to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. And in 1986, when Rehnquist was named to succeed Warren Burger as chief justice, Reagan chose Scalia to take Rehnquist’s seat.
Despite his conservative credentials, Scalia had an easy time at his Senate hearing. He coolly puffed on a pipe and joked with the senators. When Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, a fiery liberal Democrat from Ohio, noted that the nominee had beaten him on the tennis court, Scalia replied: “It was a case of my integrity overcoming my judgment, senator.” He drew a laugh and went on to win a unanimous confirmation. Years later, Scalia often marveled at his smooth ride in the Senate, and both he and his critics wondered whether he could have been confirmed at all in a more divided Senate.
During much of his tenure, Scalia’s influence within the court was limited to writing powerful dissents. His direct manner and combative style alienated some of his colleagues. He mocked opinions written by O’Connor and Kennedy, describing one of O’Connor’s abortion decisions as “absurd” and “not to be taken seriously.” He called one of Kennedy’s a “tutti-frutti opinion.”
They in turn were often reluctant to go along with Scalia in pushing the law to the right.
However, the conservative justices often came together in major cases, none better known than the 5-4 ruling that ended the recount of paper ballots in Florida and ensured a presidential victory for George W. Bush in 2000. Most lawyers had expected the high court to stay out of the post-election battle in Florida because the vote counting is governed by state law and because federal law says the House of Representatives will decide a disputed presidential election.
But acting on an emergency appeal from the Republicans, five justices, including Scalia, ordered a halt to the county-by-county recount in Florida on the grounds it could do “irreparable harm” to then-Gov. Bush. “The counting of votes that are of questionable legality does in my view threaten irreparable harm to petitioner Bush … by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election,” Scalia wrote in the Saturday order.
Three days later, on Dec. 12, 2000, the court issued an unsigned opinion ending the recount, with four written dissents.
For years afterward, Scalia bristled when questioned about the Bush vs. Gore decision. “Get over it,” he replied.
Times staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske contributed to this report from El Paso, Texas.
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