Obituary: US Justice Scalia an outspoken conservative stalwart
‘Originalism’ doctrine centered on belief that US constitution should be understood in the context of the 18th century era when it was written
Supreme court justice Antonin Scalia making a rare appearance on Capitol Hill to testify before a senate judiciary committee hearin. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA
In almost 30 years on the bench of the US supreme court justice Antonin Scalia was strident, colorful, and most of all, conservative. That made him an unlikely buddy for fellow justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I love him but sometimes I’d like to strangle him,” Ginsburg, a liberal who bonded with Scalia over a love of opera, once said.
Scalia, who died at age 79, was appointed to the high court by president Ronald Reagan in 1986 and built a reputation as one of the nation’s most brilliant, conservative jurists. He was passionately opposed to abortion and strongly supported the death penalty.
Although Scalia prevailed in many areas, thanks in part to the court’s conservative majority during his tenure, he also was known for his colourful and angry dissents, often read with theatrical flair in the courtroom.
The court term that ended in June brought him a series of defeats, most notably on gay marriage and President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, which left Scalia especially outraged and believing he had had his worst term ever.
When the court legalised same-sex marriage in June on a 5-4 vote, Scalia, who was in the minority, took aim at Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion and the liberals who joined him, saying he would “hide my head in a bag” if his own name were associated with that decision. He said the opinion was “couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic.”
That same month his dissent on a ruling affirming Obamacare dismissed the majority opinion as “pure applesauce” and “jiggery-pokery.”
During oral arguments, the voluble Scalia often aimed sarcastic verbal barbs at lawyers. He once declared to a lawyer, “Ah, come on. You can’t be serious about that.”
‘Get over it’
He was equally combative off the bench. His stock response when asked at public events about the controversial Bush v Gore ruling in 2000, which effectively handed the presidency to George W Bush, was: “Get over it.”
On the law, he took special pride in sixth amendment cases he helped develop that changed sentencing rules and that involved the right of defendants to be confronted by the witnesses against them.
But perhaps his greatest achievement came in a 2008 case in which he authored the majority opinion when the court ruled 5-4 that the US constitution’s second amendment right to bear arms extended to an individual right to keep guns in the home. It marked a major victory for the gun rights movement.
Nicknamed “Nino,” the former federal appeals court judge and law professor was proud to be the first Italian-American on the court. Scalia brought to the court a concept of jurisprudence based on the belief that judges should keep out of issues better handled by democratically accountable institutions such as Congress and state legislatures.
His doctrine of “originalism” centered on the belief that the US constitution should be understood in the context of the 18th century era when it was written. A contrary view is that the constitutional principles evolve to meet the needs of modern society. When interpreting statutes, Scalia insisted the justices should look at the actual words and shun congressional reports, floor speeches and other artifacts of legislative history.
In one of his most passionate stands, Scalia argued the right to an abortion never appears in the US constitution, and that the supreme court’s historic 1973 Roe v Wade decision that created a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion was wrongly decided.
In a 1992 dissent, Scalia explained his position on abortion. “The constitution says absolutely nothing about it and the long-standing American traditions of American society have permitted (abortion) to be legally proscribed.”
In 1996, he vigorously dissented in the court’s ruling that the all-male Virginia Military Institute must admit women or give up its state funding.
“It is precisely VMI’s attachment to such old-fashioned concepts as manly honor that has made it, and the system it represents, the target of those who today succeed in abolishing public single-sex education,” Scalia wrote.
A devout Catholic with one son who became a priest, Scalia was never shy about discussing his religion.
He used a 1996 speech in Mississippi to urge Christians to stand up for their religious beliefs. “We must pray for the courage to endure the scorn of the sophisticated world.”
He was in the majority when the court ruled in 2014 that privately held corporations could mount religious objections to a provision of Mr Obama’s signature healthcare law that required employers to provide health insurance that included contraception coverage.
Poker an piano
Scalia graduated from Harvard Law School with honours in 1960. Three years earlier, he had graduated first in his class from Georgetown University.
He spent eight years in private law practice in Cleveland and then joined the faculty at the University of Virginia Law School. In the 1970s, he served as general counsel of the White House office of telecommunications policy under Republican president Richard Nixon.
Scalia was a law professor at the University of Chicago before Reagan named him to the US court of appeals in Washington, DC, in 1982 and then four years later appointed him to the highest court in the land.
Off the bench, Scalia was known to play the piano and sing at parties. He used to enjoy a regular game of poker with the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and others.
A tuxedo-wearing Scalia once explained to reporters at an evening get-together at the court that he was going to another party, adding, “Esteemed jurist by day, man-about-town by night.”
Scalia, an only child, was born on March 11, 1936, in Trenton, New Jersey, and grew up in the Queens section of New York City. His Sicilian-born father was a professor of Romance languages at Brooklyn College and his mother taught public school.
He and his wife, Maureen, had nine children.