A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

BY Beth Summers  December 18, 2009 at 2:12 PM EDT
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A Google search for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia turns up phrases like “the Court’s most colorful Justice,” “defies simple characterization,” and “brainy and flamboyant.” Scalia, known as a largely conservative voice on the high court, granted USA Today legal affairs correspondent Joan Biskupic rare interview access for her new book, American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

The NewsHour political team is working to produce a full book discussion with Biskupic in coming weeks, but in the meantime, the Rundown posed a few questions to the author and long-time Supreme Court reporter:

Rundown: Why Justice Scalia?

Joan Biskupic: I had been following Antonin Scalia for years — my first interview with him was in 1990 — and had always considered him the most controversial, colorful justice. When I was doing the book on Sandra Day O’Connor, I had a chapter called Scalia v. O’Connor, simply because their personalities and judicial approaches were such opposites. After I finished the O’Connor book in 2005, I decided that the time was right for a more in-depth look at this justice who is the purest manifestation of Ronald Reagan’s agenda for the courts. Interestingly, in the three to four years that I was researching and writing the book, Justice Scalia became much more than a fiery dissenter issuing battle-cries to conservatives. He began prevailing more among the justices. I think the 2008 majority opinion he wrote in the Washington, D.C., guns case (finding an individual right to bear arms in the Second Amendment) shows how his influence at the Court has deepened in recent years.

**Rundown: How did you get such good access to Scalia? And how cooperative were the other Justices in talking to you about how they saw him?** Joan Biskupic: I ended up with a dozen interviews with Justice Scalia. At first he was reluctant to talk. But he soon realized that I was doing so much research into his life, that I was finding out things about his family that he didn’t know. We began swapping stories, and in time he decided to talk not just about his family, but about the law and cases. Other justices were helpful, too, especially Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is his best friend on the court, and John Paul Stevens, who is his ideological opposite but has known Scalia since the 1970s and really gets him. **Rundown: Scalia is often described as an originalist. What does that actually mean?** Joan Biskupic: That’s an important basic question. Scalia is a leader in advancing the legal theory known as “originalism,” which dictates that judges should render decisions based on the eighteenth century understanding of the Constitution. This theory contrasts with the view that the Constitution is an evolving document that can be read to fit the needs of society over time. **Rundown: What makes Scalia such a lightning rod? Why is he such a showman?** Joan Biskupic: He is controversial partly because of his “originalism” legal theory and his narrow reading of individual rights and liberties. He also is controversial because of his rhetoric and combative approach. He is certainly a “showman” on the bench, to pick up on your question. During oral arguments, and often in his written opinions, he is aggressive, passionate and animated. He is decidedly not politically correct and has a habit of invoking stereotypes. He admits that some of what he says is simply to draw attention. **Rundown: What will readers be most surprised to learn about the Justice?** Joan Biskupic: I hope readers come away with lots of new information and surprises about Scalia. Something that surprised me was his lingering disappointment over not being named U.S. solicitor general in 1981. Scalia very much wanted the job of SG (the government’s top lawyer before the court) after Reagan won the presidency, and he was one of three finalists. But in the end, then-Attorney General William French Smith chose Rex Lee. “I was bitterly disappointed,” Scalia told me. “I never forgot it.” *Check back for the NewsHour’s broadcast segment on Biskupic’s book later this month.*