Last Saturday saw the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, the renowned bastion of letter-of-the-law conservatism on the Supreme Court, at the age of 79.
Scalia was visiting a Texas ranch and missed a scheduled hunting trip after complaining of not feeling well the night before. He was found unresponsive in his bed later the next morning.
A controversial figure in the public eye throughout his tenure on the Supreme Court, Scalia was a highly principled man who vigorously defended his beliefs, even and perhaps most especially when they went against the grain of popular opinion.
Scalia was born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1936, the son of a Sicilian immigrant father and a first-generation American mother. From an early age he excelled in academics, earning entry into an elite Jesuit military academy in Manhattan and graduating as valedictorian.
A staunch Catholic in upbringing, Scalia chose to attend Georgetown for his undergraduate education, where he earned a degree in history and became a collegiate debate champion.
In 1960, he graduated from Harvard Law School magna cum laude, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Over the next twenty years, Scalia moved between private law firms, public service (he was appointed first as General Counsel for the Office of Telecommunications Policy, then as Assistant Attorney General by President Nixon) and academia.
After Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, Scalia began petitioning for a high office in the administration, impressing the president and his colleagues with his wit and poignant critique of Supreme Court precedents.
When a Supreme Court position was made available with the retirement of Chief Justice Warren Burger, President Reagan nominated Scalia, who was passed through the Senate unanimously. With his appointment, he became the first Italian-American to ever serve as a Supreme Court justice.
Unabashed in his political and moral leanings and replacing a fellow conservative in Burger, Scalia was a staunch member of the conservative wing of the Supreme Court.
He was never considered a “swing vote” in any decisions. He nonetheless became arguably the most famous justice during his tenure on the bench, causing stirs with his fiery rhetoric and traditionalist values.
Among Scalia’s more controversial dissents and opinions were Thompson v. Oklahoma, where he argued for the allowance of the execution of minors; the Affirmative Action case, where he stated the belief that African-American students might fare better in a “slower-track school”; the Affordable Care Act case, which he called “pure applesauce” and “interpretive jiggery-pokery”; abortion, which he called an “absolutely easy” moral decision to oppose; and gay rights, which he vociferously opposed, even going so far as to say he thought homosexual sodomy should be illegal on the rationale that “for 200 years, it was illegal in every state.”
Most of these opinions were based on Scalia’s adherence to the doctrines of textualism in statutory representation and originalism in constitutional representation. Matt Hindman, TU professor of political science, calls these ideologies “a look at the words on the page more so than some imaginary living ethos to the law.”
Scalia was among the first to bring textualism and originalism to the forefront of judicial thinking, and is thus considered by some experts, including TU political science professor Michael Mosher, to be one of the most important figures in changing how people study the Constitution.
With Scalia’s passing, there is a massive power vacuum in the makeup of the Supreme Court, as there now exist three conservative justices, four liberals and one relative centrist.
Should President Obama manage to appoint another liberal before the expiration of his term, he could ensure favorable decisions for liberals in the years to come.
However, Republican members of Congress, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, have pledged to block President Obama’s nominee no matter what.
Hindman believes it may end up being more prudent for the nominee to be a centrist or somebody that the Senate recently voted on unanimously to a lower court, but even then the odds of getting him/her passed through Congress may be slim.