After Justice Antonin Scalia's death at a remote
West Texas hunting resort last weekend, I remembered how he had
described his passion for the sport.
"It gets me outside of the Beltway, gets me into the woods,
far away from all this," he said in one of roughly 20 interviews
I had with him in his chambers over the last decade, most when I
was writing a biography of him.
On a wall was the mounted head of an elk with an imposing
six-by-six rack. Yet Scalia became most excited when he
described hunting turkey.
"It's more proactive," he said, eyes lit. "You're not just
waiting. Have you ever heard a turkey gobble? It's a very
strange sound, like a wooden rattle. (You) hear that far away
and then make sounds like a hen to induce him to come closer and
closer. Finally, he sticks his head up over a log, and you have
to take your shot, or else you've lost him. You get one shot. If
you miss, the whole day's ruined."
He lived that way, with boundless energy for that one shot.
He was the most influential conservative jurist of contemporary
times. He transformed debate over the U.S. Constitution with his
"originalist" view that it should be interpreted in its 18th
Century context, rather than adapted to the needs of modern
society. He made his case with rhetorical flair and a zest
inspired by his Italian heritage.
I knew him for 25 years as a journalist and biographer. My
2009 "American Original" was not an authorized biography, yet he
ended up giving me a dozen interviews for it and kept allowing
me to visit after publication. Justices generally do not give
interviews to reporters, but the research I had done on his
family intrigued him - even as he tried to one-up me.
I unearthed documents related to his father's arrival from
Sicily in 1920, his naturalization and pursuit of a doctorate in
Romance languages at Columbia University. When I told Scalia I
knew that his father, who arrived at age 17 knowing no English
but quickly mastered it, had won a prestigious fellowship from
Columbia to travel to Rome in 1935, Scalia rejoined, "But did
you know I was conceived on that fellowship?"
Dueling forces shaped his childhood and produced a man
comfortable with conflict and ready to generate it. His highly
disciplined father became a professor and demanded much of the
son. His mother, a public school teacher, came from a
light-hearted clan of storytellers, people who worked in local
politics and sales.
An only child, and the only offspring of his generation
(none of his parents' siblings had children), Scalia had the
spotlight and never let it go. Nino, as he was known, engaged in
operatic gestures and brilliant rhetoric.
His dissents were most memorable. Soon after he joined the
nine-member bench in 1986, he was the lone dissent as the court
upheld a law that allowed judges to appoint special prosecutors:
"Frequently, an issue of this sort will come before the court
clad, so to speak, in sheep's clothing. But this wolf comes as
Fervently conservative on social dilemmas, he opposed
abortion rights, gay marriage and race-based policies intended
to give minorities a boost. His criticism of his liberal
colleagues was scathing, but he directed the sharpest barbs at
conservatives he thought had betrayed the cause.
"Nino, in my view, sometimes does go overboard," Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, his ideological opposite and longtime
friend, told me when I was writing the book. "It would be better
if he dropped things like: 'This opinion is not to be taken
seriously.' He might have been more influential if he did that."
When I met with Scalia last summer, at the close of the
2014-15 session, he was despondent about a string of
conservative losses, especially the June decision declaring a
constitutional right to gay marriage. He said he would not get
over it. He spoke with intense anger about colleagues in the
majority on that case.
But I'd heard him rant before, especially on abortion and
gay rights rulings. And I knew that even when Scalia had a good
year, as in 2008 when he wrote a landmark decision for
individual gun rights, it was never enough.
"The wins," he sighed then, "The wins. Damn few."
(Joan Biskupic is editor in charge, Legal Affairs, for
Reuters. She has reported on the Supreme Court since 1989. The
opinions expressed here are those of the author.)