Examining the 'Life and Constitution' of Antonin Scalia

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: a new look at a pivotal Supreme Court justice.

Gwen Ifill talked to a reporter who has been covering Antonin Scalia on the bench for more than two decades.

GWEN IFILL: Joan Biskupic, the author of "American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin 'Nino' Scalia," thank you joining us.

JOAN BISKUPIC, author, "American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia": Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: It is so interesting. Everybody thinks they know what they believe about Justice Scalia, but what do we know about him that is right, and what do we know about him that is wrong?

JOAN BISKUPIC: Well, he's certainly very conservative, but how he became that conservative, many people don't know. They don't know the kind of household he grew up in, very strict Roman Catholic, the son of a man who was a translator, a textualist, who looked at documents and took them by their words, which the justice now does to strong degree in his own life.

He was an only child. And not only was he the only child of these two striving Italian-Americans. He was the only offspring of his generation. His mother was one of seven, no cousins, no other children there, his father one of two.

So, he grew up someone who was quite the center of attention, which can be quite enabling — you think you should always be the center of attention — but also a burden. So, he was a young boy and became a man who felt the need to prove himself.

GWEN IFILL: How did he get that nickname "Nino"?

JOAN BISKUPIC: Nino? Well, you know, everybody is always going to be — when you have a name like Antonin, and his — he was named after his grandfather, who was Antonino. And, so, the Nino became an easy nickname from that.

GWEN IFILL: You have been covering the Supreme Court for quite some time. And, yet, Justice Scalia is not one known for one who give interviews. But you got to him talk to you for this book.

JOAN BISKUPIC: I did. In fact, he, at first, wouldn't. He said — he acknowledged that we had kind of a rocky relationship over my two decades covering the court, which you are going have with your subjects often.

And he said: Talk to my colleagues. Talk to my family. Talk to, you know, former clerks, but I'm not talking to you.

But, in time, what happened, as I got into his personal story and found lots of good information in judicial archives, immigration archives, his home in Trenton, New Jersey, and then where he grew up in Queens, we started swapping information. And one thing led to another, and I had about a dozen sit-down on-the-record interviews with him.

GWEN IFILL: You say immigration archives. We talking about at Ellis Island?

JOAN BISKUPIC: Yes. His father came in through Ellis Island. His — his father came to America as a young teenager knowing hardly any English, and then went on to get a Ph.D. in Romance languages at Columbia University and taught for three decades. And his father was quite a force in his life.

So, tracing back that story and the striving immigrant story was quite helpful to coming to understand Justice Scalia.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about the forces in his life. We know him now as perhaps the world's most famous conservative, originalist, unyielding. Where did that come from?

JOAN BISKUPIC: You know, his own father was pretty unyielding and was someone who read texts. He actually translated a lot of texts as a professor of romance languages. He grew up in a strict Roman Catholic family, again, the striving first-generation family.

No one remembers him in his past as being really anything other than conservative. And, you know, when you say to him, Justice Scalia, when did you first become an originalist, he will say, it is like saying, you know, when did you first start eating flesh or something? He doesn't remember ever not being an originalist, and he does know that there is a pejorative cast sometimes to it.

And just…

GWEN IFILL: What does that mean?

JOAN BISKUPIC: I was just going to say…


JOAN BISKUPIC: … just to define it for people, it's — someone who takes this originalist approach to the Constitution looks back to the 18th century drafters and how they understood the law and how they wanted it understood at that time, rather than apply a 21st century overlay to it, as, for example, the late William Brennan famously did, to think of it as a living, evolving Constitution.

And, on the current court, Justice Stephen Breyer embodies that a lot in the way he talks about how the Constitution should be read to meet society's needs today. What Justice Scalia says to that is, if you want to meet society's needs today, and it is not in the Constitution, pass a law. I'm not standing in your way. Pass a law. Do it legislatively.

GWEN IFILL: I have to say, I was really surprised. One of the things that surprised me most was to discover that his best friend on the court is one of the court's most liberal members, Justice Ginsburg.

JOAN BISKUPIC: Yes, quite a feminist, a woman who really made her name in terms of equal rights as an advocate for the ACLU, no less, and then now comes on to the court and is a liberal, as Justice Scalia is certainly not.

But what she says, Gwen, is, "I love Nino, although I would like to strangle him sometimes."

GWEN IFILL: I think we're all familiar with situations where that might be true. I want to read — you to read a little section of the book which tells us a little bit about the way Justice Scalia behaves on the bench. He is very talkative. He is very lively, and he's quite the jokester.

JOAN BISKUPIC: OK, let's see.

"To some extent, Scalia's behavior on the bench was just an exaggerated form of what other justices were trying to do with their own queries, argue with each other, something that occurred surprisingly little off the bench. Mostly, however, Scalia's frequent and sharp interventions seem the result of an irresistible impulse."

That's him. He is always sort of impulsing all over.

"His appetite for debate was so strong that he could hardly stop himself from entering the fray. When he heard counsel give confused arguments or arguments he thought wrong, he jumped in. When he heard a question from a colleague go unanswered, he leaped, too.

"Some of this was just because time was short and he believed shouldn't be wasted on bad argumentation. Some of it seemed to show him as the schoolboy who knew the answer and blurted it out, now without the need to raise his hand for permission."

Even though he had gone to — you know, he was raised in an era, some Catholic schools, some public schools, where you really had to mind the teacher, there's something about him that doesn't seem to mind the teacher.


But you mentioned his Catholicism, a very big part of who he is.


GWEN IFILL: And it also shapes what he believes as well.


In fact, I — there's a chapter, as you know, that talks about the passions of his mind and looks at his great passion for Roman Catholicism, in fact, the old-fashioned Roman Catholicism. He likes to say that Vatican II was not on his hit parade. He thinks people should still be praying the rosary, going to the — all the holy days. He talks about that.

GWEN IFILL: He will drive a distance to find a parish that suits his needs.

JOAN BISKUPIC: Oh, yes. Yes. Yes. I loved his mother-in-law's comment to him: "Don't you people live near churches?" Because they were always driving to find the right kind of church, and, at best, often the Latin mass.

But he also has a certain passion for the repudiation of Roe vs. Wade, the abortion rights ruling. And I pair those two, but I let him say that, despite his seriousness about a religion, which will he acknowledge he is very serious about his religion, that his decisions on abortion and the separation of church and state really are not driven by those.

He says: "I read text. I read the Constitution. I'm an originalist. I don't let my religious views come in, and I don't let any other personal views come in."


GWEN IFILL: Did you believe that?

JOAN BISKUPIC: Well, what I do is, I let critics respond to that.


JOAN BISKUPIC: And I think, face it. He's very conservative. It's hard to see that, despite — if he was of a different religion or denomination, that he wouldn't feel as passionately against Roe v. Wade, but, certainly, his Roman Catholicism is in the picture, at least in terms of what many critics feel.

GWEN IFILL: He is how old?

JOAN BISKUPIC: Seventy-three.

GWEN IFILL: No signs of retirement?

JOAN BISKUPIC: No signs of retirement, although, at one point, I said to his wife, now, he is in good health, right?

And there was enough of a pause that I got a little nervous.

GWEN IFILL: Now, he does still smoke. He smokes Marlboro Lights. He smokes. He drinks. He eats a lot. But he — his family — his parents lived into their 80s. And he seems vigorous. So, I think he has at least a decade more on the court.


JOAN BISKUPIC: Well, you know, that is a good question, because he certainly has been a force. But can a force that is so extreme to one side really endure?

I'm sure his great writing will endure. But will what he says in the law endure? Justice Ginsburg, his close friend on the court, thinks not.

GWEN IFILL: Joan Biskupic, author of "American Original," your book about Justice Antonin Scalia, great reading. Thanks so much.

JOAN BISKUPIC: Thank you, Gwen.