A Biography of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

Justice Scalia had a clear sense of right and wrong

Justice Antonin Scalia Gives Talk In Virginia
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Although the confrontational style of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Gregory "Nino" Scalia was widely regarded as being one of his less appealing qualities, it underscored his clear sense of right and wrong. Motivated by a strong moral compass, Scalia opposed judicial activism in all forms, favoring instead judicial restraint and a constructivist approach to the interpretation of the Constitution. Scalia stated on numerous occasions that the power of the Supreme Court is only as effective as the laws created by Congress.

Scalia's Early Life and Formative Years

Scalia was born March 11, 1936, in Trenton, New Jersey. He was the only son of Eugene and Catherine Scalia. As a second generation American, he grew up with a strong Italian home life and was raised Roman Catholic. 

The family moved to Queens when Scalia was a child. He graduated first in his class from St. Francis Xavier, a military prep school in Manhattan. He also graduated first in his class from Georgetown University with a degree in history. He earned his law degree from Harvard Law School, where he also graduated at the top of his class.

His Early Career

Scalia's first job out of Harvard was working in commercial law for the international firm of Jones Day. He remained there from 1961 until 1967. The lure of academia drew him to become a law professor at the University of Virginia from 1967 to 1971. He was appointed general counsel of the Office of Telecommunications under the Nixon administration in 1971, then he spent two years as chairman of the U.S. Administration Conference. Scalia joined the Ford administration in 1974, where he worked as Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel.


Scalia left government service upon the election of Jimmy Carter. He returned to academia in 1977 and occupied a number of academic positions until 1982, including resident scholar for the conservative American Enterprise Institute and law professor at Georgetown University Law Center, the University of Chicago School of Law, and Stanford University. He also briefly served as chairman of the American Bar Association's section on administrative law and the Conference of Section Chairs. Scalia's philosophy of judicial restraint began to gather momentum when Ronald Reagan appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1982. 

Supreme Court Nomination

When Chief Justice Warren Burger retired in 1986, President Reagan appointed Justice William Rehnquist to the top spot. Rehnquist's appointment drew all the attention from Congress and the media, and even the Court. Many were pleased, but Democrats strongly opposed his appointment. Scalia was tapped by Reagan to fill the vacancy and he slipped through the confirmation process virtually unnoticed, floating by with a 98-0 vote. Senators Barry Goldwater and Jack Garn didn't cast votes. The vote was surprising because Scalia was far more conservative than any other Justice on the High Court at the time.


Scalia was one of the most well-known Justices and was famous for his combative personality and his judicial philosophy of "originalism" – the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted in terms of what it meant to its original authors. He told CBS in 2008 that his interpretive philosophy is about determining what the words of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights meant to those who ratified them. Scalia maintained that he was not a "strict constructionist," however. "I do not think the Constitution or any text should be interpreted either strictly or sloppily; it should be interpreted reasonably."


Scalia's sons, Eugene and John, worked for the firms that represented George W. Bush in the landmark case, Bush v. Gore, which determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. Scalia drew fire from liberals for refusing to recuse himself from the case. He was also asked but declined to recuse himself from the case of Hamden v. Rumsfeld in 2006 because he had offered an opinion on an issue related to the case while it was still pending. Scalia had remarked that Guantanamo detainees don't have the right to be tried in federal courts. 

Personal Life vs. Public Life

After graduating from Georgetown University, Scalia spent a year in Europe as a student at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He met Maureen McCarthy, a Radcliffe English student, at Cambridge. In 1960, they married in 1960 and had nine children. Scalia was fiercely protective of his family's privacy throughout his term on the High Court, but he began granting interviews in 2007 after years of refusing to do so. His sudden willingness to engage the media was due primarily to the fact that his children had all become full-grown adults.

His Death 

Scalia died on February 13, 2016, at a ranch resort in western Texas. He failed to appear for breakfast one morning and an employee of the ranch went to his room to check on him. Scalia was found in bed, deceased. He was known to have heart trouble, to suffer from diabetes, and he was overweight. His death was declared due to natural causes. But even this event was not without controversy when rumors began swirling that he had been murdered, particularly because an autopsy was never performed. This was at his family's behest, however – it had nothing to do with political intrigue. 

His death incited an uproar as to which president would have the right to appoint a replacement for him. President Obama was nearing the end of his second term in office. He nominated Judge Merrick Garland, but Senate Republicans blocked Garland's appointment. It ultimately fell to President Trump to replace Scalia. He nominated Neil Gorsuch very soon after taking office and his appointment was confirmed by the Senate on April 7, 2017, although Democrats attempted a filibuster to block it. 

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Hawkins, Marcus. "A Biography of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/a-biography-of-supreme-court-justice-antonin-scalia-3303417. Hawkins, Marcus. (2020, August 27). A Biography of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-biography-of-supreme-court-justice-antonin-scalia-3303417 Hawkins, Marcus. "A Biography of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-biography-of-supreme-court-justice-antonin-scalia-3303417 (accessed May 30, 2023).