A deeply probing biography of the controversial Supreme Court justice.
Civil rights historian Murphy (Civil Rights/Lafayette Coll.; Wild Bill: The Legend and Life of William O. Douglas, 2003, etc.) begins by giving the long-serving justice Scalia the benefit of the doubt as a brilliant legal scholar and vigorous textualist. Ultimately, though, he becomes as incredulous and frustrated by the justice’s oppositional “originalism” and personal pugnacity as his oft-quoted observers, colleagues and critics. In setting out the life’s journey of this extraordinarily driven character, who carefully situated himself as an academic, writer, Republican team player and judge on the District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from which the pool of Supreme Court justices were frequently plucked, the author notes an entrenched pattern of solipsistic self-righteousness that was engrained early on. Scalia was the only child (b. 1936) of Italian-Americans in Queens; his intellectual father taught romance languages at Brooklyn College and was himself a “literalist” in textual interpretation. A brilliant student, Scalia absorbed the rigor and competitiveness of his Jesuit education, delighting in debate, and was later inculcated by the political conservatism of Harvard Law School in the 1950s. From private practice in Cleveland to teaching to moving into the reaches of power under President Richard Nixon, Scalia proved his conservative bona fides by trying to scuttle the Freedom of Information Act. A founding member of the Federalist Society, Scalia’s strict adherence to an originalist (rather than “living”) interpretation of the Constitution won him appointment to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1986. However, Scalia would not become a “consensus builder.” Rather, his confrontational style, especially in attacking the very conservative justices, like Sandra O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy, he hoped to sway, only alienated the middle, especially regarding such issues as freedom of speech, reproductive rights, and the separation of church and state.
Murphy moves case by case in an evenhanded, thoroughgoing study.