Reporting from Richard Wolf, Susan Page and Gregory Korte of USA Today and BJC Staff Reports
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, the outspoken leader of the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative bloc, was found dead at a Texas ranch on Saturday, Feb. 13. Scalia, 79, was a guest at the resort.
During his nearly three decades on the High Court, Scalia’s intelligence and acerbic opinions made him a hero to conservatives and a target for liberals.
The day of Scalia’s passing, BJC Executive Director Brent Walker released a statement on social media, sharing that the organization was “shocked and saddened” at the news of his untimely death. “We extend our sympathy to the Scalia family and his colleagues on the U.S. Supreme Court, and we pray for God’s grace and comfort for them during these difficult days ahead,” Walker said.
“While the BJC often did not agree with his interpretation of the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses, Justice Scalia will be remembered as a towering figure on the High Court for his intellect, his wit and his incisive opinions,” Walker said. In the January Report from the Capital, Walker criticized Scalia’s recent statement that government can favor religion over irreligion.
“Seeking to fill a Supreme Court vacancy in the midst of a highly-charged political campaign when the presidency and the Senate are led by different parties only heightens the potential for stalemate and acrimony,” Walker continued. “We pray for our nation as well.”
Scalia managed to steer the federal judiciary toward his twin theories of “originalism” and “textualism” — strictly reading the words of the Constitution and federal statutes to mean what their authors intended, and nothing more.
The first Italian-American to serve on the court when he was named by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, “Nino” Scalia established himself as a firm opponent of abortion, gay rights and racial preferences.
He was the lone dissenter when the Court opened the Virginia Military Institute to women and consistently opposed affirmative action policies at universities and workplaces. When the Court struck down the key section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2013, he angrily predicted that it would lead to same-sex marriage — and in 2015, he was proved right.
On the winning side of the ledger, Scalia was best known for authoring the Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, upholding the right of citizens to keep guns at home for self-defense. The 5-4 decision, he said, was “the most complete originalist opinion that I’ve ever written.”
When it comes to religious liberty, Scalia was often criticized for the opinion he wrote in the 1990 case of Employment Division v. Smith, which effectively neutered the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.
The opinion held that the First Amendment does not require exceptions to neutral laws that incidentally burden religion, noting that robust protection for the exercise of religion is a “luxury” that would “court anarchy.” Opposition united religious and civil liberty groups, and the BJC chaired the coalition that fought for the creation and passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to restore what the opinion undermined.
Scalia was not one to compromise his principles or cut a deal for a moderate opinion. His objections, he said recently, were not based on policy views but on “who decides” — and his answer almost invariably was the Constitution, the Congress or the president, not unelected judges with lifetime appointments like himself.
“Don’t paint me as anti-gay or anti-abortion or anything else,” he said. “We are a democracy. Majority rules.”
Despite his sometimes petulant personality, which he used on occasion to berate unprepared litigators standing alone at the lectern, Scalia was popular with his colleagues. He maintained close friendships with liberal Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Ginsburg recently recalled listening to Scalia deliver a speech to the American Bar Association. She disagreed with the thesis, she said, but “thought he said it in an absolutely captivating way.”
“If you can’t disagree on the law without taking it personally,” Scalia was fond of saying, “find another day job.”
Scalia’s claim to fame remained his reliance on the plain language of the Constitution and congressional statutes to guide his decision-making. The founding documents, he said, should not be subject to “whimsical change” by five judges.
“The Constitution means what the people felt that it meant when they ratified it,” he said. “Only in law do we say that the original meaning doesn’t matter.”
While he faced difficulty convincing liberal members of the Court to follow his lead on the Constitution, he had more luck when it came to statutory interpretation. “He has won that battle,” Kagan said.
On the bench, Scalia was one of the Court’s most active and incisive questioners. Virtually every year, he led all justices in quips that elicited laughter in the courtroom, according to tabulations by Boston University law professor Jay Wexler.
At a Feb. 20 memorial service, Scalia was remembered as a man whose deeply held religious faith brought him peace.
Rather than a star-studded funeral service featuring judges and politicians, Scalia’s sendoff at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was a traditional Mass of Christian Burial befitting a true believer.
All the current Supreme Court justices attended, along with former justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter, sitting on folding chairs in front of the first pew.
On the day before, more than 6,000 people paid their respects as Scalia’s body lay in repose at the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. The building remained open to allow everyone in line to get in.
Born March 11, 1936, in Trenton, N.J., Scalia graduated from Georgetown University and Harvard Law School. In 1982, he was named to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a well-worn stepping-stone to the Supreme Court. Four years later, he won unanimous Senate confirmation.
He is survived by his wife, Maureen. They have nine children and 36 grandchildren.