Justice Antonin Scalia, whose transformative legal theories, vivid writing and outsize personality made him a leader of a conservative intellectual renaissance in his three decades on the Supreme Court, was found dead on Saturday at a resort in West Texas. He was 79.
“He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in a statement confirming Justice Scalia’s death. “His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he so loyally served.”
The cause of death was not immediately released. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals Service, which sent personnel to the scene, said there was nothing to indicate the death was the result of anything other than natural causes.
He was, Judge Richard A. Posner wrote in The New Republic in 2011, “the most influential justice of the last quarter century.” Justice Scalia was a champion of originalism, the theory of constitutional interpretation that seeks to apply the understanding of those who drafted and ratified the Constitution. In Justice Scalia’s hands, originalism generally led to outcomes that pleased political conservatives, but not always. His approach was helpful to criminal defendants in cases involving sentencing and the cross-examination of witnesses.
Justice Scalia also disdained the use of legislative history — statements from members of Congress about the meaning and purposes of laws — in the judicial interpretation of statutes. He railed against vague laws that did not give potential defendants fair warning of what conduct was criminal. He preferred bright-line rules to legal balancing tests, and he was sharply critical of Supreme Court opinions that did not provide lower courts and litigants with clear guidance.
All of these views took shape in dissents. Over time, they came to influence and in many cases dominate the debate at the Supreme Court, in lower courts, among lawyers and in the legal academy.
By the time he wrote his most important majority opinion, finding that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, even the dissenters were engaged in trying to determine the original meaning of the Constitution, the approach he had championed.
That 2008 decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, also illustrated a second point: Justice Scalia in his later years was willing to bend a little to attract votes from his colleagues. In Heller, the price of commanding a majority appeared to be including a passage limiting the practical impact of the decision.
With the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens in 2010, Justice Scalia became the longest serving member of the current court. By then, Justice Scalia was routinely writing for the majority in the major cases, including ones on the First Amendment, class actions and arbitration.
He was an exceptional stylist who labored over his opinions and took pleasure in finding precisely the right word or phrase. In dissent, he took no prisoners. The author of a majority opinion could be confident that a Scalia dissent would not overlook any shortcomings.
Justice Scalia wrote for a broader audience than most of his colleagues. His opinions were read by lawyers and civilians for pleasure and instruction.
At oral argument, Justice Scalia took professorial delight in sparring with the advocates before him. He seemed to play to the crowd in the courtroom, which rewarded his jokes with generous laughter.
Justice Scalia’s sometimes withering questioning helped transform what had been a sleepy bench when he arrived into one that Chief Justice Roberts has said has become too active, with the justices interrupting the lawyers and each other.
Some of Justice Scalia’s recent comments from the bench were raw and provocative. In an affirmative action case in December, he said that some minority students may be better off at “a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.”
“I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible,” he said, describing — some said distorting — an argument in a supporting brief about the harm that can be caused to students with inferior academic credentials by admitting them to colleges where they do not thrive.
Justice Scalia was a man of varied tastes, with a fondness for poker, opera and hunting. His friends called him Nino, and they said he enjoyed nothing more than a good joke at his own expense.
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