‘You get one shot': How Justice Antonin Scalia viewed the world
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 a wolf.”
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.”