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Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia dead at 79

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gives the keynote speech at the Snake River Adjudication celebration dinner at the Boise Center on the Grove in Boise, Idaho, on Monday, Aug. 25, 2014.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia gives the keynote speech at the Snake River Adjudication celebration dinner at the Boise Center on the Grove in Boise, Idaho, on Monday, Aug. 25, 2014. AP

Antonin Scalia, the influential conservative and most provocative member of the Supreme Court, has died. He was 79.

The U.S. Marshal’s Service in Washington confirmed Scalia’s death at a private residence in the Big Bend area of South Texas.

The service’s spokeswoman, Donna Sellers, says Scalia had retired for the evening and was found dead Saturday morning when he did not appear for breakfast.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts called Scalia “an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues.”


Scalia’s death sets up a likely ideological showdown during an intense election year as President Barack Obama weighs nominating a successor in the remainder of his White House term. Scalia was part of a 5-4 conservative majority – with one of the five, Anthony Kennedy, sometimes voting with liberals on the court. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz have both said they think the next president should fill the vacancy.


Praise poured in from fellow conservatives Saturday as the news broke.

“Justice Scalia was a remarkable person and a brilliant Supreme Court Justice, one of the best of all time. His career was defined by his reverence for the Constitution and his legacy of protecting Americans’ most cherished freedoms. He was a Justice who did not believe in legislating from the bench and he is a person whom I held in the highest regard and will always greatly respect his intelligence and conviction to uphold the Constitution of our country,” said Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump in a statement.

“Today our Nation mourns the loss of one of the greatest Justices in history – Justice Antonin Scalia. A champion of our liberties and a stalwart defender of the Constitution, he will go down as one of the few Justices who single-handedly changed the course of legal history,” GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz said.

President George W. Bush called Scalia “was a towering figure and important judge on our Nation's highest court. He brought intellect, good judgment, and wit to the bench.”

“Justice Antonin Scalia was a man of God, a patriot, and an unwavering defender of the written Constitution and the Rule of Law. He was the solid rock who turned away so many attempts to depart from and distort the Constitution. His fierce loyalty to the Constitution set an unmatched example, not just for judges and lawyers, but for all Americans,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement. “We mourn his passing, and we pray that his successor on the Supreme Court will take his place as a champion for the written Constitution and the Rule of Law. Cecilia and I extend our deepest condolences to his family, and we will keep them in our thoughts and prayers.”


Scalia, the first Italian American to serve on the court, was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and quickly became the kind of champion to the conservative legal world that his benefactor was in the political realm.

An outspoken opponent of abortion, affirmative action and what he termed the "so-called homosexual agenda," Scalia's intellectual rigor, flamboyant style and eagerness to debate his detractors energized conservative law students, professors and intellectuals who felt outnumbered by liberals in their chosen professions.

Scalia was the most prominent advocate of a manner of constitutional interpretation called "originalism," the idea that judges should look to the meaning of the words of the Constitution at the time they were written.

He mocked the notion of a "living" Constitution, one that evolved with changing times, as simply an excuse for judges to impose their own ideological views.


For much of the public, the perception of Scalia was formed in the polarized court's ruling in Bush v. Gore. Scalia wrote for himself when the court issued an emergency stay to stop the vote-counting in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. "The counting of votes that are of questionable legality does in my view threaten irreparable harm to (Bush), and to the country, by casting a cloud upon what he claims to be the legitimacy of his election," the wrote.

To Gore supporters, that sounded like an attempt not to find out which candidate got the most votes but to protect the integrity of Bush's win. Moreover, the five-member majority based its ultimate ruling on an expansive reading of the equal protection clause, which in previous cases involving gays, blacks and women Scalia had preferred to read narrowly. The case was also a departure from his reluctance to endorse federal intrusion in state and local affairs.

He tired of questions about his prominent role in the court's 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore, which halted a recount of the presidential vote in Florida and effectively decided the presidency for Republican George W. Bush. His response to those who raised questions years later: "Get over it."


An avid hunter and a member of his high school rifle team, Scalia wrote the court's 5-to-4 ruling that held for the first time that the Second Amendment afforded a right to gun ownership unrelated to military service.

"His views on textualism and originalism, his views on the role of judges in our society, on the practice of judging, have really transformed the terms of legal debate in this country," Elena Kagan said about Scalia when she was dean of Harvard Law School, alma mater to both. "He is the justice who has had the most important impact over the years on how we think and talk about law."

After Kagan was nominated to the court by President Barack Obama, she and Scalia became friends and hunting buddies - despite their distinct ideological differences and the fact that Kagan had never shot a gun. They went to Wyoming together in 2012 in hopes of Kagan bagging a big-game trophy like the elk, nicknamed Leroy, whose mounted head dominated Justice Scalia's Supreme Court chambers.

But she shot only a white-tailed deer, which Justice Scalia later laughingly said "she could have done in my driveway" at his suburban Virginia home.

Antonin Gregory Scalia - "Nino" to family, friends and colleagues - was born in Trenton, New Jersey, on March 11, 1936, and grew up in the New York City borough of Queens. His father, Salvatore, came through Ellis Island at 17; he learned English and became a professor of romance languages at Brooklyn College.

Scalia's mother, the former Catherine Panaro, was a second-generation Italian American and an elementary school teacher. Not only was Nino their only child, he was the only child of his generation on either side of the family.

The whole extended clan doted on him, biographer Joan Biskupic reported in her biography "American Original," and expected achievement. "You're not everybody else," Catherine would say, according to Biskupic. "Your family has standards, and it doesn't matter what the standards of (others) are."

In 1953, he graduated first in his class at St. Francis Xavier, a military prep school in Manhattan, and won a naval ROTC scholarship but was turned down by his first choice of college, Princeton.

A devout Catholic, he attended his second choice, Georgetown University, where he was the valedictorian of the class of 1957. In his graduation speech, he exhorted his fellow students: "If we will not be leaders of a real, a true, a Catholic intellectual life, no one will!"

Scalia then entered Harvard Law School, where he was editor of the law review and graduated magna cum laude in 1960. That same year, he married Maureen McCarthy, a Radcliffe student he'd met on a blind date.

She, too, came from a small family, but they made up for it, with five sons and four daughters and literally dozens of grandchildren.

"We didn't set out to have nine children," Justice Scalia told Lesley Stahl on the CBS show "60 Minutes." "We're just old-fashioned Catholics, playing what used to be known as 'Vatican Roulette.' "

He added that the other four sons were relieved when their brother Paul decided to "take one for the team" and become a priest.

Scalia and his wife were close friends with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband, Martin.

Ginsburg said no one made her laugh as much as Scalia did. "I love him. But sometimes I'd like to strangle him," she once said.

Staff contributed to this report.

Path to confirmation

The next Supreme Court nominee will face a divided Congress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz separately suggested the next president should fill the vacancy created by Scalia’s death.

This is how long it took to confirm current justices:

Elena Kagan: 87 days

Sonia Sotomayor: 72 days

Samuel Alito: 92 days

John Roberts: 72 days

Stephen Breyer: 77 days

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: 50 days

Clarence Thomas: 106 days

Anthony Kennedy: 84 days

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