At the time of his sudden death this weekend, 79-year-old Justice Antonin Scalia was the longest-serving member of the current U.S. Supreme Court. After President Ronald Reagan nominated the well-known conservative to the nation’s highest bench in 1986, the Senate unanimously confirmed his nomination, making Scalia the first Supreme Court justice of Italian ancestry. Known for his support of “originalism,” the attempt to interpret the law according to what the framers of the Constitution intended, Scalia was outspoken and provocative both in his well-written opinions and his spirited verbal sparring with advocates appearing before the court and his colleagues on the bench.
Born in Trenton, New Jersey on March 11, 1936, Antonin Gregory Scalia was the only child of Salvatore and Catherine Scalia. His father, a Sicilian immigrant, taught Romance languages at Brooklyn College, while his Italian-American mother was an elementary school teacher. Antonin (known to his friends as Nino) grew up in New York City, graduating first in his class from Georgetown University and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. He practiced law in Cleveland in the early 1960s, then moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, and became a law professor at the University of Virginia in 1967.
During his tenure there, Scalia took his first government post, as general counsel of the Office of Telecommunications Policy. He later served as chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States, an agency of the executive branch that advises federal regulators. In 1974, President Richard Nixon nominated Scalia as assistant attorney general in charge of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel; he was confirmed shortly after Nixon’s own resignation. In that position, Scalia argued on behalf of the United States before the Supreme Court in the 1976 case of Alfred Dunhill of London Inc. v. Cuba.
Scalia rejoined academia in 1977, on the faculty of University of Chicago’s law school. At the same time, he edited Regulation magazine, a review published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He turned down a seat on the federal appeals court in Chicago in the hopes of gaining a more prestigious spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Reagan appointed him to the D.C. Circuit, often considered a steppingstone to the Supreme Court, in 1982.
In June 1986, after Chief Justice Warren Burger announced his impending retirement, Reagan nominated Scalia to the Supreme Court. The last of an era when presidents were allowed far more latitude by their political opponents in appointing justices to the nation’s highest court, he was confirmed by a vote of 98 to 0.
From his first years on the bench, Scalia distinguished himself as an outspoken and passionate defender of the originalist doctrine, which sought to interpret the Constitution as understood at the time of its adoption. He was aggressive in his oral arguments with lawyers appearing before the court, as well as with his colleagues on the bench. In his skillfully crafted written opinions, which were intended for—and often reached—a wider audience than those of his fellow justices, Scalia could be particularly witty, and withering. In 2015, an analysis by a California law professor found that of the 134 examples of sarcasm found in written Supreme Court opinions from 1986 to 2013, Scalia authored 75.
Though Scalia’s originalist theories had initially marked him as an outsider on the court, they gradually gained support over the years. Later in his career, he would author the majority opinion on many cases, including those related to the First Amendment, class actions and arbitration. He is perhaps best known for writing the majority opinion in the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, in which the court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a loaded handgun at home for self-defense.
In some cases, Scalia’s belief in originalism led him to take positions that contradicted his own policy positions or personal sympathies, as when he voted to strike down a law making it a crime to burn an American flag in 1989. His understanding of the Sixth Amendment led Scalia to decisions that helped transform criminal law, including favoring restrictions on police searches and protections for defendants’ rights.
A devout Roman Catholic, Scalia was also a steadfast opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, but he insisted that religious beliefs played no part in his decisions on the bench. He was regarded as one of the leading intellects on the Supreme Court, and his decisions (despite their controversial nature) were notably logical and consistent, and are considered some of the best written in the court’s history. On a personal level, the gregarious Scalia endeared himself even to his ideological opposites. He shared a love of opera and a longstanding New Year’s Eve celebration with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, his best friend on the Supreme Court, and had taken another liberal justice, Elena Kagan, along on hunting trips.
The 79-year-old Scalia arrived at Cibolo Creek Ranch, a luxury resort about 40 miles south of Marfa, Texas, around noon last Friday along with a group of about 35 guests. He retired to his room after dinner that night, and was found unresponsive the following morning. After an investigation confirmed that he died of natural causes, the U.S. Marshals Service arranged for his body to be returned to his home in McLean, Virginia. In a statement, Chief Justice John Roberts called Scalia “an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues…His passing is a great loss to the court and the country he so loyally served.” Scalia leaves behind his wife of more than 50 years, Maureen, with whom he had nine children and 36 grandchildren.