Antonin Scalia, Conservative High Court Justice, Dies at 79

Antonin Scalia

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Longest serving of current members was sarcastic, combative
  • Lame-duck Obama faces challenge of confirming a successor

Antonin Scalia, the sharp-tongued U.S. Supreme Court justice who sought to limit constitutional protections to those envisioned by the nation’s founders, has died. He was 79.

Antonin Scalia
Antonin Scalia
Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Scalia was visiting the luxury Cibolo Creek Ranch resort near Marfa in West Texas, where the U.S. Marshals Service confirmed he was found dead on Saturday, according to the Associated Press. A cause of death wasn’t immediately known.

“I am saddened to report that our colleague Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in an e-mailed statement. “He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues.”

Scalia’s death, in the near term, greatly reduces the chances of major conservative victories in pending cases involving President Barack Obama’s immigration plan, abortion, mandatory union fees and voting rights. It also threw open the question of whether Obama can win confirmation of any successor in the Republican-controlled Senate before he leaves office in January.

Scathing Dissents

Known for his sarcasm and combative style, Scalia was a polarizing force on the court and across the country. He called the 2015 decision that legalized gay marriage a “threat to American democracy,” said a 1992 abortion-rights opinion “cannot be taken seriously,” and predicted a 2008 ruling favoring Guantanamo Bay inmates “will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed.”

In 2002, Scalia blasted a decision that invoked the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment to bar executions of mentally disabled killers. “Seldom has an opinion of this court rested so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of its members,” Scalia said in his dissent.

Tributes piled up for Scalia, whose appointment in 1986 made him the longest-serving member of the current court. He “was the solid rock who turned away so many attempts to depart from and distort the Constitution,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican candidate for president, said Scalia “will go down as one of the few justices who single-handedly changed the course of legal history.” Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who frequently disagreed with Scalia, said the justice was “steadfast and true to his beliefs.”

Obama on Saturday said Scalia “will no doubt be remembered as one of the most consequential judges and thinkers” to serve on the high court.

“I plan to fulfill my constitutional responsibilities to appoint a successor, in due time,” he said.

Pending Cases

One possibility is Sri Srinivasan, a 48-year-old federal appeals judge in Washington who would be the court’s first justice of Asian ancestry. A potential compromise is Srinavasan’s appeals court colleague, Merrick Garland, 63, whom Obama considered for Supreme Court openings in 2009 and 2010. At the time, Garland had support from prominent Republicans, including Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Antonin Scalia
Antonin Scalia
Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Scalia was as controversial off the bench as on. In his later years, he would respond to questions about the Bush v. Gore decision -- which sealed Republican George W. Bush’s 2000 election as president over Democrat Al Gore -- by telling critics to “get over it.”

In the 2003-04 term, he went duck hunting with Vice President Dick Cheney, then rejected calls that he remove himself from a case asking whether Cheney had to disclose records from his energy task force.

True ‘Originalist’

Scalia advocated an “originalist” constitutional interpretation that hewed to the words of the document and the meaning they had at the time of adoption. He disdained the concept of a “living Constitution” whose meaning could change as society evolved and different justices took the bench.

During a Feb. 8 speech to the Economic Club of New York, Scalia said the court protects its reputation “by acting like a court. By calling it like it is. By reading texts as saying what it says, and not what it would be diplomatic or popular for it to say.”

“We’re not diplomats,” Scalia said. “It’s the one institution that gives the law the meaning it has. When we depart from that I think we lose ourselves.”

Scalia invoked originalism when he wrote the landmark Heller v. District of Columbia decision, which established that the Constitution’s Second Amendment protects individual gun rights. “It is not the role of the court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct,” Scalia said.

When the court voted in 1992 to reaffirm the constitutional right to obtain an abortion, Scalia accused the majority of relying on “personal predilection.”

Culture Wars

“It is difficult to maintain the illusion that we are interpreting a Constitution, rather than inventing one, when we amend its provisions so breezily,” he wrote.

Dissenting from a 2003 ruling that said consenting adults have a right to engage in private homosexual conduct, Scalia said the court “has taken sides in the culture war.” He predicted that the majority would eventually legalize same-sex marriage, a prophecy that came true 12 years later.

Obamacare Dissent

He issued a blistering dissent in 2015 when a 5-4 majority interpreted Obama’s health-care law as allowing critical tax subsidies nationwide. Scalia said the majority defied the law’s clear language, calling the court’s reasoning “pure applesauce” and “interpretive jiggery-pokery.”

In 1990, Scalia joined the court majority in saying a state could require “clear and convincing evidence” of a patient’s previously expressed wish to die before family members could disconnect a life-support system.

Scalia said the justices were no more qualified to question a state’s judgment than “nine people picked at random from the Kansas City telephone directory.”

Divisive though he was, Scalia maintained an unlikely friendship with the liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The two frequently clashed in their written opinions, yet they socialized with one another after hours. Scalia often referred to Ginsburg as his best friend on the court. The pair shared, among other things, a love of opera.

Early Life

Antonin Gregory Scalia was born on March 11, 1936, in Trenton, New Jersey. His father was Salvatore Eugene Scalia, an Italian immigrant who became a professor of languages at Brooklyn College. His mother was the former Catherine Panaro, a public-school teacher whose parents had migrated from Italy.

Scalia grew up in New York’s Queens borough, where he attended Catholic schools. He studied at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland in 1955 and 1956 before graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Georgetown University the following year. Scalia then earned a degree at Harvard Law School in 1960.

After practicing law at Jones Day Cockley & Reavis in Cleveland for six years, he taught at the University of Virginia’s law school until 1974. Scalia then served as legal counsel in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford before working as a law professor at the University of Chicago from 1977 to 1982. President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1982.

Reagan’s Pick

In 1986, Reagan nominated Scalia to the Supreme Court. With the Senate simultaneously considering William H. Rehnquist’s ascension to chief justice, Scalia’s nomination drew little attention. He won confirmation by a 98-0 vote, becoming the first Italian-American justice.

Reagan nominates Scalia in 1986
Reagan nominates Scalia in 1986
Photographer: Ron Edmonds/AP

Scalia proved an aggressive questioner from the bench who relished pointing out what he saw as the logical fallacies of arguments made by attorneys.

When the court ruled in 1989 that the Constitution’s free-speech clause protects people who burn the U.S. flag as a form of political protest, Scalia surprised many observers by joining the majority.

In 1990, Scalia wrote the court’s decision letting Oregon criminalize the use of peyote, a hallucinogen, even though it was used in American Indian religious ceremonies. He said states didn’t impinge on the free exercise of religion through generally applicable laws that incidentally affected particular sects.

State Immunity

Scalia joined a series of 5-4 opinions that limited congressional power and expanded the immunity of states from lawsuits. He also sought to expand the rights of landowners to demand compensation from the government when their ability to build was limited by environmental regulations.

In 2002 Scalia joined a 5-4 decision that upheld a school voucher program for the first time. He opposed the use of race in college admissions, voting to strike down two affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan in 2003.

Scalia dissented in 2006 when the court barred the military tribunals the Bush administration had hoped to use to try accused terrorists at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. In an earlier Guantanamo case, he voted against the Bush administration, saying it lacked the right to indefinitely detain, without charges, an American citizen captured fighting in Afghanistan.

With his wife, the former Maureen McCarthy, he had nine children.

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