"American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia," by Joan Biskupic
The masterful new biography of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by Joan Biskupic, who has covered the court for two decades for the Washington Post and USA Today, is a riveting portrait of one of the most brilliant, outspoken and unabashedly controversial justices in U.S. history.
Biskupic tells the story of a bigger-than-life jurist who is leaving a decidedly conservative imprint on the court. Her book is most noteworthy, however, because she captures the real Scalia, warts and all.
The result is an unvarnished portrait of the 73-year-old jurist who remains one of the intellectual leaders of the court, yet at times manages to alienate his own colleagues and friends with his "natural combativeness." However, he has never wavered from speaking his mind, an authentic quality that has allowed him to transform the face of American law.
The story opens in Washington, with "Nino" Scalia delivering a speech at the Mayflower Hotel to an enthusiastic crowd of Federalist Society members. He is waving his hands and declaring that the Supreme Court's landmark 2008 decision establishing that citizens have an individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment -- an opinion that Scalia himself authored -- was proof that the court was finally returning to the "original meaning" of the Constitution.
A quarter of a century after his appointment to the nation's highest court, Scalia is "at the apex of his influence," Biskupic observes. Indeed, he has become an American cult figure of sorts. Born in Trenton, N.J., the only child of Italian immigrants, this devout Catholic had a pedigree that was unusual for someone who would join the most elite ranks of the legal profession.
After graduation from Harvard Law School, he eventually became an assistant attorney general with the besieged U.S. Justice Department in August 1974, just days after President Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($28)
There, he joined forces with President Gerald Ford's deputy chief of staff, Dick Cheney, opposing amendments to the Freedom of Information Act that would have made it easier for citizens to gain access to documents.
Both Scalia and Cheney shared a deep distrust of the media and over-reaching members of Congress. They also came to share, according to Biskupic's account, a extreme view of presidential power: "You're either with us -- or against us."
By the time he was appointed by President Reagan to the Supreme Court in 1986, at 50, Scalia had solidified his identity as a "relatively lonely voice of defiant conservatism," Biskupic said.
He crafted opinions with sharp, stinging barbs that spared no fellow jurist, even those conservatives who were not vocal enough for him. Soon, Scalia had transformed himself into a hero among the conservative elite of Washington.
One of the most compelling aspects of Biskupic's book is her dead-on portrait of Scalia's tenure on the court, showing what has made this original jurist tick. Among the most revealing stories:
When it came to race and affirmative action, he was a rock-solid originalist, reminding colleagues that his own family had suffered serious indignities as Italian immigrants but expected no special treatment; he argued that affirmative action was unsupported by the text or history of the 14th Amendment and amounted to racism.
Scalia found an unlikely ally when Justice Clarence Thomas was appointed to the bench in 1991, the second African American in the court's history. Together, they helped to curb the creation of race-based legislative districts under the Voting Rights Act and the creation of race-based "set-aside" programs for employment.
Scalia became so incensed over the homosexuality cases and a decision of the court requiring Virginia's all-male military academy to admit women that he seriously considered stepping down from the bench. In a speech, he called the United States "a country I do not recognize."
Scalia played a lead role in the Supreme Court's highly controversial decision during the explosive presidential election of 2000. At public appearances, as students carried protest signs and questioners asked him to defend the decision to halt the Florida recount and to hand the election to George W. Bush, Scalia retorted, "Get over it!"
After Sept. 11, 2001, Scalia was equally vocal in endorsing a hard line against terrorists. With his son, Matthew, serving in Iraq, Scalia dismissed as foolhardy the notion that enemy combatants should be afforded constitutional rights in the United States, a matter that would soon come before the court in a series of cases in which Scalia found himself dissenting vigorously.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the most liberal members of the court, who had served with Scalia on the U.S. Court of Appeals before they were elevated to the high court, remains one of Scalia's closest friends. She told Biskupic, "I love him. But sometimes I'd like to strangle him."
In one memorable episode, Scalia refused to recuse himself in a case seeking to force former Vice President Dick Cheney to disclose who had attended a controversial "energy task force" gathering at the Old Executive Office Building in 2001.
Scalia's refusal to sit out was particularly noteworthy because he had just gone on a duck-hunting trip with Cheney in Louisiana. Speaking at an event at Amherst College, explaining why he did not feel compelled to recuse himself in this case, Scalia stated: "It did not involve a lawsuit against Dick Cheney as a private individual. This was a government issue." With that he waved his hand dismissively and declared: "That's all I'm going to say for now. Quack, quack."
Although he has often played the role of "legal provocateur," he embodies a modern sea change in the Supreme Court's culture. Historically, that Court has been populated by tight-lipped justices who shun the limelight, and avoid commenting on public matters that are even remotely controversial. Scalia has shattered that model and defied the prevailing wisdom that justices should be seen in their written opinions but not heard. Whether that change in the court's culture is good or bad will have to await the judgment of history.
For now, Biskupic's thoroughly researched biography is destined to be the definitive modern account of a jurist who represents the face of conservative justice in America.
First Published January 10, 2010 12:00 am