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The Staunchly Conservative Life and Rulings of Justice Antonin Scalia

Arch-conservative, pro-lifer, opera lover, and funnyman of the Supreme Court: Antonin Scalia had many facets, and at least one very unlikely friend.
February 14, 2016, 2:55am
Les juges de la Cour Suprême Ruth Bader Ginsburg et Antonin Scalia, quatrième et cinquième en partant de la gauche, posent avec une compagnie d'opéra le 8 janvier 1994. (Photo de Stephen R. Brown / AP)

Justice Antonin Scalia – the staunch conservative, opera aficionado, funnyman, and most controversial figure of the Supreme Court – was found dead in his room at a luxury ranch in West Texas on Saturday. He was 79.

Scalia, who was born in New Jersey to a Sicilian immigrant father and Italian mother, became the first Italian-American justice to sit on the Supreme Court when President Ronald Reagan appointed him in 1987. In his 29 years on the Supreme Court bench, Scalia's acerbic wit and vicious attacks on social issues, like gay rights, birth control and abortion, made him a controversial character.

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In three decades on the court, his opinions, often dissenting from the majority on social issues, included several denunciations of homosexuality and dismissals of equal protection in the constitution for women — issues that turned him into probably the most polarizing of the nine justices.

Scalia's career in Washington began when President Richard Nixon appointed him to the Office of Telecommunications Policy, where he was charged with drawing up federal policies for the emerging cable television industry. After Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal, President Gerald Ford charged Scalia with determining whether documents and tapes containing 3,700 hours of Nixon's secretly recorded phone calls ought to remain private.

Scalia concluded that the tapes should not be released. However, the Supreme Court overruled his recommendation, voting unanimously that the materials should be turned over to the public.

When Republican Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, Scalia was nominated to a federal appeals court in Washington. Four years later, at age 50, Reagan appointed him to the Supreme Court.

Scalia was known as a strict adherent to the constitution and a leading proponent of the doctrine known as originalism, which essentially holds the meaning of the constitution is fixed. "The death penalty? Give me a break. It's easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion," Scalia told the American Enterprise Institute in 2012. "Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state."

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He was also known for the wit he employed in defense of his views that it wasn't the court's job to uphold the rights of categories of Americans including gay people. For example, in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case, which hinged on whether a state law banning sexual contact between people of the same sex was constitutional, he wrote in his dissenting opinion that the law "undoubtedly imposes constraints on liberty. So do laws prohibiting prostitution, recreational use of heroin, and, for that matter, working more than 60 hours per week in a bakery." In other words, Scalia equated gay sex to prostitution or heroin use.

In a 2011 interviewwith the magazine California Lawyer, Scalia defended his unwillingness to deal with things like the constitutional defense of equal rights for women, with an explanation that goes to the core of what his originalist view was about.  "You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society," he said. "Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't."

Scalia's strict adherence to the text of the constitution made him a cherished figure among conservative Republicans. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz wrote on Facebook after the news of Scalia's death broke: "Justice Scalia fundamentally changed how courts interpret the Constitution and statutes, returning the focus to the original meaning of the text after decades of judicial activism."

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Cruz also praised Scalia's ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which found a DC law regulating gun ownership to be unconstitutional. Cruz said that the 5-4 ruling was "one of the most important decisions ever."

Scalia held controversial views on affirmative action as well. A current Supreme Court case involving the University of Texas has the potential to reshape the role of affirmative action in college applications and admissions across the country — and in December, Scalia suggested that black students were unable to compete at top colleges. Instead of reserving a number of places for black students at high-ranking university such as the University of Texas, he suggested that "slower track schools" might be more appropriate. For many, Scalia's comments were eerily reminiscent of the rhetoric used to justify racial segregation in the United States.

His comments didn't even sit well with GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who publicly expressed his disapproval. In an interview with CNN, the real estate mogul said his first reaction when he read Scalia's take was "Woah", adding that he thought the justice's comments were "very tough to the African-American community." Nonetheless, Trump tweeted ahead of Saturday night's debate in South Carolina that "the totally unexpected loss of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a massive setback for the Conservative movement and our COUNTRY!"

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Scalia was one of the four dissenting votes in the landmark Supreme Court ruling to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage in 2015. He called the ruling "a threat to American democracy."

In the King v. Burwell ruling, which deemed it legal for federal tax money to pay for American's health care under the Affordable Care Act, Scalia was one of three dissenting votes, and accused the Supreme Court justices of showing biases towards certain laws, calling their language "interpretive jiggery-pokery."

In another controversial ruling, Scalia was part of the majority in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which determined that it was unconstitutional for the government to place a limit on how much money corporations and unions can funnel into political campaigns. The ruling determined that political spending was a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.

Scalia was also doggedly committed to overturning the Roe vs. Wade ruling that made abortions legal in 1973.

On a personal level, Scalia was known as the funniest justice on the Supreme Court. A law professor at Boston University analyzed transcripts from every Supreme Court hearing and debate in 2004, and found that Scalia's comments and quips triggered laughter in 77 separate occasions. The study also found that Scalia was 19 times funnier than fellow justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In spite of political differences, Ginsburg and Scalia were good friend and bonded over their shared love of opera – in 1994, the two appeared as extras in a production of Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos." They even made a habit of spending New Years Eve together. Their friendship has been held up as a glowing example for warring politicians whose ideological differences have made it impossible to find common ground.

This story has been amended to add quotes from Justice Scalia's rulings and statements.