Just over a year ago, the nation lost Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most significant members of the Supreme Court in recent history. “Nino Scalia will go down in history as one of the most transformational Supreme Court justices of our nation,” Justice Kagan stated. Justice Breyer described him as a “legal titan.”
Antonin Scalia was born in 1936 to a college professor and a schoolteacher in Trenton, New Jersey. He received his bachelor’s degree in history from Georgetown in 1957, his law degree from Harvard in 1960. A talented student, Justice Scalia graduated at the top of his high school, undergraduate, and law school classes. After law school, he practiced as a commercial lawyer. Then, beginning in 1967, he taught law at the University of Virginia. In 1971, he went to work for the Nixon and Ford Administrations in a variety of positions; from 1974 to 1977, he served as the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel. He returned to teaching law, this time at the University of Chicago, in 1977. In 1982, he was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In 1986, President Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court, and the Senate confirmed him with a unanimous vote.
Scalia was a passionate and influential advocate of originalism—a theory of constitutional interpretation based on adherence to the public meaning of the text at the time of ratification. But he would on occasion soften some of the sharp edges of the theory. He called himself a “fainthearted originalist,” by which he meant that he sometimes accepted longstanding precedent even when it did not align with the original meaning of a constitutional provision. His most famous demonstration of his version of originalism came in his opinion for the Court in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), where he concluded that the original meaning of the Second Amendment was to protect an individual’s right to have a gun in the home for purposes of self defense. He supported his conclusion with pages and pages of history from the Founding Era; Justice Stevens, writing in dissent, felt compelled to write his own originalist analysis, matching Scalia’s historical treatise with one of his own. In addition to his originalism, Justice Scalia was well known for his biting dissents and witty, colorful writing. For a Supreme Court justice, his prose were unusually memorable.
The death of a sitting Supreme Court Justice has become an increasingly rare event. Only one other justice (William Rehnquist) has passed away while still in office in the past half century. (Scott Boddery in the Washington Post considers reasons deaths of sitting justices have become so unusual.)
Scalia’s seat on the Court remains empty today, over a year after his death. Republicans in the Senate refused to hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, claiming that Justice Scalia’s seat should not be filled until after the presidential election. It was an unprecedented, longshot strategy to try to avoid allowing a Democratic President to fill the conservative justices seat. It has appeared to work. The Republicans won the presidency and preserved their Senate majority, and the new President’s nominee to the Court, Neil Gorsuch, a judge whose commitment to originalism and conservative record put him in close alignment with Justice Scalia, is poised to fill the vacant seat.