Antonin Gregory Scalia
Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court
Born: March 11, 1936, in Trenton, New Jersey
Died: February 13, 2016, in Presidio County, Texas
New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2021: Public Service
As a member of the U.S. Supreme Court for 29 years, Antonin Scalia had a huge influence on the course of the nation, articulating the conservative point of view and supporting an originalist interpretation of the Constitution.
Scalia was born to a Sicilian immigrant father and a first-generation Italian-American mother. An exceptional student, he graduated first in his class from Georgetown University and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. He began to practice law in Cleveland, then taught at the University of Virginia. He entered government service in 1971 as general counsel of the Office of Telecommunications Policy, where he helped formulate regulations for the cable television industry. Three years later, President Richard Nixon tapped Scalia to be assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel; after Nixon’s resignation, Scalia testified before congressional committees on behalf of the Gerald Ford administration on the issue of executive privilege.
After a return to teaching at the University of Chicago Law School, Scalia accepted an appointment by President Ronald Reagan to the federal appeals court for the District of Columbia. As an appellate judge, Scalia built a reputation for his conservative views and forcefully written opinions. This further impressed President Reagan, who nominated him for the Supreme Court in 1986.
Although understood to be a staunch conservative, Scalia won Senate approval to the High Court by a 98-0 vote, an achievement that seems virtually impossible by 21st-century political standards. Indeed, taking the seat of Chief Justice Warren Burger, a more moderate conservative, Scalia helped swing the court further right in the ensuing decades.
Scalia’s decisions on the High Court were often based on his adherence to the judicial philosophy of originalism, which called for a strict interpretation of the Constitution and what is assumed to be the intent of those who drafted and ratified it more than two centuries ago. This is in contrast to those who view the Constitution as a living document that should change with the times.
As the Supreme Court’s conservative anchor, Scalia ruled against gun control and in favor of states’ rights. He loudly dissented against court rulings reaffirming abortion rights and legalizing same-sex marriage. In 2000, he concurred with the court’s decision to shut down a Florida vote recount, assuring George W. Bush’s defeat of Al Gore for the presidency. And in 2015, he dissented from the court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act. At the same time, he sometimes surprised conservatives with his consistent support for free speech, even in a flag-burning case.
Scalia served on the High Court until his death in 2016. Although blunt and contentious in his opinions, he was revered by his fellow justices for his wit and intellectual prowess.