‘You get one shot': How Justice Antonin Scalia viewed the world

February 16, 2016
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at an event sponsored by the Federalist Society at the New York Athletic Club in New York October 13, 2014. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW) - RTR4A1AA

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at an event sponsored by the Federalist Society at the New York Athletic Club in New York, October 13, 2014. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz

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.”

14 comments

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God rest his soul. Hopefully far from the court. As living flesh, he was a hideous right wing hack who had no business on the high court to begin with.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

From what I have read Scalia wrote horrible mean spirited attacks into his opinions. I never really liked him much and I can’t say I am sorry he is gone. There is no rules in this world that says you have to be a ferociously mean person to make your point. You can have different opinions with others and still keep the tone of your rhetoric civilized. It looks like Scalia went out of his way to tear into those who he disagreed with. Completely convinced of the correctness of his position he was unable to even entertain the remotest possibility he might be wrong. I think most people would call that bigotry.

Posted by caserojj | Report as abusive

Quack Quack.

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/justice-scal ia-defends-cheney-trip/

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

from all the comments that I’ve read , It seems only his family and close friends will miss him , The winds of change are coming , now that the mountain has fallen . RIP

Posted by herman54 | Report as abusive

Let’s simply hope that he is replaced by someone more competent and less braggadocio …

Posted by deLafayette | Report as abusive

Horrible human being with no place in the 21st century – good riddance

Posted by flowerpot-men | Report as abusive

corpulent and corrupted by his political commitments, he was the perfect example of someone who should never be a supreme court judge. Good Riddance

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

Real hunters don’t take private jets to “guest ranches.” Real hunters call those gay clubs.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

6 extremely negative comments so far, undoubtedly by individuals who know nothing about Judge Scalia. To get the true flavour of this gifted jurist one probably has to turn to those who knew him best, his colleagues and his friends…his liberal friends for that matter. Go to the Supreme court website and you’ll see the testimonials of Judges Ginsburg and Kagan. Both women considered Scalia as a dear friend (Kagan hunted with him) and speak of his intelligence, wisdom, his wit, and his knowledge of the law. In contrast, for the standard “everyone speaks well of the dead” testimonial see Sotomayor. America will miss Judge Scalia. R.I.P

Posted by Sara15 | Report as abusive

Being stuck in the 18th century and denying the 21st is different is pure conservatism at its worst.

Posted by ArghONaught | Report as abusive

Killing defenceless animals from a hideout?
What a dastard psychopath!

Posted by Antikapitalista | Report as abusive

To all you haters commenting – Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were hunting buddies and highly respected each other. Guess you’re smarter than she is.

Posted by Squiggy | Report as abusive

Was an advocate against gay rights, against abortion rights, and FOR the war on drugs.

Basically…. an enemy freedom.

And he was a terrible shot with a rifle. Missed more deer than Dick Cheney missed quail. These are spoiled posers, living off the fat of corruption.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Through history human instincts and behavior have not changed. The characteristics that made a great nation in the past is the same as those needed to make a nation great today. The behavior that erodes a nation now are the same behaviors that destroyed nations of the past. only technology has changed. There will always be different views, but people who classify those that differ in opinion as haters, racists, sinners, etc. are doing the most harm.
Scalia had his opinions, but those who may think he was unmovable should look at how all on the bench tend to vote.
The direction of this country will not be dependent the decisions and actions of our leaders, but the results of the voters who elected them.
When an individual talks about another, we learn more about the talker than the person of discussion.

Posted by jcusa777 | Report as abusive