Antonin Scalia, arguably the Court's most colorful jurist today, defies simple characterization. Indeed, the often controversial and combative justice draws out a wide range of sentiments from his peers and the public. Certainly, no one denies his immense legal brilliance and intellectual abilities. A Supreme Court observer once noted that if the mind were muscle and Court sessions were televised, Scalia would be the Arnold Schwartzenegger of American jurisprudence. Scalia also fills the role of the strong man. His confrontational style has startled many attorneys who have appeared before him. One litigator even described his action as those of a big cat batting around a ball of yarn. Scalia adds a dynamic personality to the Court. An author of recent study on the Court's conservative shift quipped that on a bench lined with solemn gray figures who often sat as silently as pigeons on a railing, Scalia stood out like a talking parrot. Scalia's own statements hint at his penetrating manner. When a reporter once commented favorably about Scalia's tuxedo, the ever-loquacious justice responded: "Ah yes, esteemed jurist by day, man about town by night." However, Scalia expresses nothing but humility about his job as a justice. At a conference before a crowd of law students, he admitted that he felt no sense of power whatsoever from his position. Instead, he agonized that his duty commonly forced him to end up doing things that: "I don't want to do."
Although many have noted his charms, Scalia's outspoken advocacy has alienated and at times offended some of his colleagues. Once, after a long tirade concluding that affirmative action constituted the most evil fruit of a fundamentally bad seed, a slightly offended Sandra Day O'Connor expressed her displeasure with the comment: "But, Nino, if it weren't for affirmative action, I wouldn't be here." Scalia's habit of using rhetorical extremes--for example, labeling a colleague's refusal to agree with him as "perverse" and "irrational"--has also hurt his relations with fellow justices. These anecdotes serve to form a portrait of this remarkable justice. As Scalia's role changes from a spearhead to an anchor in the moderating Court, the ever- unpredictable justice continues to amuse, astonish, satisfy, and frighten many Court watchers.
Antonin Scalia was born on March 11, 1936, in Trenton, New Jersey, as the only child of Eugene and Catherine Scalia. A second generation American, Scalia grew up with a strong Italian heritage explained by his father's foreign birth and his mother's immigrant upbringing. His father worked as a professor of Romance languages and his mother taught school. When young Nino was five, his father accepted a job at Brooklyn College and moved the family to Queens, New York.
Called "Nino" by friends and family, Scalia first attended public school in Queens. He later enrolled in St. Francis Xavier, a military prep school in Manhattan, where his intellect and work resulted in a first place graduation. Scalia's academic success continued at Georgetown University where he completed his undergraduate studies and received an A.B. summa cum laude in history. Scalia also graduated from Georgetown as class valedictorian. Scalia went on to Harvard Law School. He served as editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude. After graduation, Scalia traveled in Europe for a year as part of his Sheldon Fellowship from Harvard. He met and became engaged to Maureen McCarthy, a student at nearby Radcliffe College, during his law school years. They married in 1960 and have nine children. They share a strong mutual faith in Catholicism.
After a brief stint working with commercial law, Scalia decided to teach law at the University of Virginia. After four years at Virginia, Scalia left teaching to pursue a career in government service. He started first as a general counsel for the Office of Telecommunication Policy under the Nixon administration. He successfully negotiated a major agreement between industry leaders to organize the growth of cable television. Between 1972 and 1974, Scalia chaired the Administrative Conference of the United States which studied ways to improve the efficiency of governmental processes. Richard Nixon nominated Scalia to head the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel just before the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign. President Ford assigned Scalia the task of determining legal ownership of the famous Nixon tapes and documents. Scalia decided in favor of Nixon, a reflection of his deep respect for the executive branch, though the Supreme Court soon ruled unanimously against this conclusion.
When President Jimmy Carter entered the White House in 1977, Scalia left government service to work as a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington D.C. Scalia also taught law briefly at the Georgetown University Law Center before moving to Chicago to teach at the University of Chicago Law School. His family had grown so considerably by then that Scalia had to buy a former fraternity house to accommodate them. He stayed in Chicago between 1977 and 1982, leaving once only briefly to teach at Stanford. Although he made good impressions among his academic peers, he did not dazzle anyone in his scholarly efforts. Some colleagues observed that Scalia's heart seemed set on active politics rather than academic law.
Scalia served a brief period between 1981 and 1982 as the chairman of the American Bar Association's section on administrative law and the Conference of Section Chairs. He soon received another chance to return to public service. Reagan appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington D.C. in 1982 where Scalia developed his reputation for following judicial restraint and limited interpretation. His colleagues viewed him favorably and remembered him mostly for his constant willingness to engage in dialogue over matters of law.
In 1986, President Reagan promoted William H. Rehnquist to the position of chief justice in the wake of the retirement of Warren Burger. To fill the vacancy created by Rehnquist's promotion, Reagan nominated Scalia to the Supreme Court. The political focus on Rehnquist's nomination drew all the attention away from Scalia. Thus, even though Scalia had a much more conservative record than Rehnquist, ironically Scalia's nomination passed unanimously and virtually uncriticized. Scalia took the oaths of office, becoming the youngest justice on the Court. His staunch conservatism and obvious intellect excited many conservative advocates who saw much promise in his confirmation.
Scalia's pursuit of strict interpretation, judicial restraint, and bright-line distinctions in the law has led him to surprising votes in his years on the bench. He has puzzled or pleased many conservatives and liberals by voting consistently in favor of free speech. Scalia provided the critical fifth vote, much to the dismay of conservative activists, in striking down a Texas flag- burning prohibition. He also ruled that a St. Paul, Minnesota, prohibition against hate crimes violated freedom of speech. On the issue of reproductive rights, Scalia has labored mightily to strike down Roe v. Wade (1973). He has consistently rejected any notion of a right to abortion under the Constitution, arguing always that such matters constituted political decisions best decided by the popular branches of government.
Scalia's future is secure yet uncertain. Many believe that the moderation of the Court in recent years through the nominations of President Clinton will increasingly paint Scalia into an extreme intellectual corner. His confrontational and argumentative style may also detach him further from the mainstream of the Court. However, regardless of his future role and position on the ever-changing Court, Scalia's legal genius and rhetorical powers will likely ensure that his voice and vision, if not always supported, will continue to be heard.