Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia was best known as an Associate Justice for the U.S. Supreme Court, appointed in 1986 by Ronald Reagan.


Antonin Scalia was a U.S. Supreme Court Justice member born on March 11, 1936, in Trenton, New Jersey. He was a practicing lawyer in the 1960s, and then worked in public service in the '70s with roles in President Richard Nixon’s general counsel and as the Assistant Attorney General. In the '80s he became a part of President Ronald Reagan’s Court of Appeals. In 1986, President Reagan nominated him as Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, serving in that capacity until his death on February 13, 2016.

Background, Education and Family Life

Antonin Gregory Scalia was the only child of Salvadore Eugene and Catherine Panaro Scalia. His father emigrated from Sicily as a teenager and came through Ellis Island. The older Scalia got a college education and became a professor of romance languages at Brooklyn College. Antonin Scalia's mother was first generation Italian-American who worked as an elementary school teacher until Antonin was born. Early in life, he acquired the nickname "Nino," partly in remembrance of his grandfather, for whom he was named.

As a young boy, Scalia enjoyed being an only child in his immediate family as well as his extended family, a rare occurrence in Italian Catholic clans at the time. Scalia admitted that being the center of so much attention gave him a very secure feeling growing up. But being the only child also meant everyone's expectations were put squarely on him. Scalia's father was a major influence on his life, providing him with much of his core values of conservatism, hard work and discipline that he exhibited as an adult.

Scalia grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood of Queens in New York City. He attended a public elementary school where he was a straight A student. He went on to Xavier High School in Manhattan, a military school run by the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church. It was there that Scalia’s conservatism and deep religious conviction was further developed. Self-described as "not a cool kid," he spent much of his time absorbed in his school work. He continued to receive high academic marks and finished first in his class.

In 1953, Scalia enrolled at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where he graduated valedictorian and summa cum laude with a bachelors degree in history in 1957. After graduation, he went on to study at Harvard Law School. During his final year he met Maureen McCarthy, an undergraduate at Radcliffe College. The couple was married on September 10, 1960, and had nine children together.

Legal Career

Scalia began his legal career at the law offices of Jones, Day, Cockley & Reavis in Cleveland, Ohio in 1961. He was highly regarded and would likely have made partner, but like his father, he longed to teach. In 1967, he took a professorial position at the University of Virginia Law School and moved his family to Charlottesville.

In 1972, Scalia entered public service when President Richard Nixon appointed him general counsel for the Office of Telecommunications Policy, where he helped formulate regulations for the cable television industry. In the immediate aftermath of the Watergate scandal in 1974, Scalia was appointed Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Council. In this role, he testified before congressional committees on behalf of the Ford administration over executive privilege. He later argued his first and only case before the U.S. Supreme Court in Alfred Dunhill of London, Inc. v. Republic of Cuba on behalf of the U.S. Government and won the case.

After a brief stint at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a teaching post at the University of Chicago Law School, Scalia accepted an appointment from President Ronald Reagan on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1982. There he built a conservative record and won high praise in legal circles for his powerful and witty writing, often critical of the U.S. Supreme Court he was bound to follow as a lower court judge. This drew the attention of Reagan administration officials, who put him on the short list for a Supreme Court nomination. Scalia was later confirmed Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 upon the retirement of Chief Justice Warren Burger.

Supreme Court Justice

As a Supreme Court Justice, Scalia was considered to be one of the more prominent legal thinkers of his generation. It was also through his blunt (some would say scathing) dissents that he earned a reputation as combative and insulting. And yet to many who knew him personally, he was unpretentious, charming and funny. One of his closest friends on the Supreme Court was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose political views were vastly different from his own.

Justice Scalia adhered to the judicial philosophy of originalism, which holds that the Constitution should be interpreted in terms of what it theoretically meant to those who ratified it over two centuries ago. This was in direct conflict with the more commonly held view that the Constitution is a "living document," allowing courts to take into account the views of contemporary society. In Justice Scalia's view, the Constitution was not supposed to facilitate change but to impede change to citizens' basic fundamental rights and responsibilities. Justice Scalia abhorred "judicial activism" and believed the place for implementing change was in the legislature, where the will of the people are represented.

Critics say that such a legal interpretation is an impediment toward progress and point to many different examples of where the Constitution's founders held views repugnant to today's standards, such as racial and gender equality. Justice Scalia's opponents stress that by interpreting the Constitution in its original form, any progressive law would be declared unconstitutional because it doesn't adhere to the original intent of the founders. For these reasons, Justice Scalia was oftentimes accused of allowing his personal views to influence his legal judgment.

Over the course of his judicial career, Justice Antonin Scalia was characterized as the anchor of the court’s conservative majority. In his quarter century on the court he became a political celebrity, especially with socially and politically conservative groups. He puzzled conservatives and pleased liberals by voting to uphold free speech, as in the Texas flag-burning case and striking down a prohibition on hate speech. In keeping with conservatives, he strove to limit the right to an abortion, rejecting the notion that his position was religiously motivated and stressing that the issue should be decided in the legislature. He made no apology to the accusation that his role in the case of Bush v. Gore handed the 2000 election to George W. Bush, telling critics it was the right thing to do. 

He also confounded many Court observers by his recusal record, where he withdrew from cases whose topics would interest him, such as the Pledge of Allegiance case of Elk Grove v. Newdow. But Justice Scalia refused to recuse himself in the case of Cheney v. US District Court for DC, even though he had a close personal relationship with then Vice President Dick Cheney.

Dissent Against Affordable Care Act

On June 25, 2015, when the Supreme Court handed down a 6 to 3 majority decision in the case of King v. Burwell, upholding a key component of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, Justice Scalia made headlines in voicing his dissent. Justice Scalia called the majority decision which allowed the federal government to provide nationwide tax subsidies to help Americans buy health insurance “interpretive jiggery-pokery” in which “words no longer have meaning.” In his dissenting opinion, he wrote: “We should start calling this law SCOTUScare," referring to the acronym used to refer to the Supreme Court of the Unites States (SCOTUS) and Obamacare. He added: "The Court's decision reflects the philosophy that judges should endure whatever interpretive distortions it takes in order to correct a supposed flaw in the statutory machinery. That philosophy ignores the American people's decision to give Congress '[a]ll legislative Powers' enumerated in the Constitution."

One day after the Supreme Court ruling on the health care law on June 26, 2015, the highest court announced a landmark 5 to 4 ruling guaranteeing a right to same-sex marriage. Justice Scalia voted against the majority decision along with fellow conservatives Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justice Scalia expressed his opinion that it was not the Supreme Court's role to decide same-sex marriage, and he wrote that the ruling was "at odds not only with the Constitution, but with the principles upon which our nation were built."


On February 13, 2016, 79-year-old Justice Scalia was found dead at a luxury resort in West Texas. He reportedly died of natural causes, with later reports revealing that he had suffered from heart trouble and high blood pressure.

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