In many ways, he fit the archetype of the contemporary Georgetown student. He originated in New Jersey; he attended a Jesuit high school in New York; and he was rejected from his dream Ivy League university.
Multitalented and overly committed to extracurricular activities at the Hilltop — from theater to debate — he admitted in a 2008 interview on 60 Minutes, “I was never cool.”
While his ambition and career took him from Harvard to Chicago, Antonin Scalia (CAS ’57) never strayed too far from his Georgetown roots, presiding for over 20 years as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, just over a mile away on the National Mall.
“He was a larger-than-life person who really enjoyed being himself,” University President John J. DeGioia said. “He valued his Georgetown experience greatly and was attentive to what unfolded over the course of the years that followed.”
A polarizing and outspoken giant of the Supreme Court, Scalia died Saturday in Shafter, Texas, of an apparent heart attack at the age of 79.
“Head the Quest for Truth”
Born in 1936 in Trenton, N.J., to Italian parents, Antonin Gregory Scalia, affectionately referred to as “Nino,” attended Xavier High School, an all-male Jesuit preparatory school in Manhattan, where he graduated first in his class. Despite his stellar grades, Scalia was rejected by Princeton University, after which he chose to enroll at Georgetown.
At the Hilltop, Scalia majored in history, making the Dean’s List all four years and graduating summa cum laude as valedictorian of his class. After a junior year abroad in Fribourg, Switzerland, Scalia was named as part of the Who’s Who his senior year, a list of students who left an impact on campus through their leadership in both academics and extracurriculars.
The appellation was fitting for Scalia, who dove into drama and debate during his college years. As a freshman, Scalia joined the Gaston-White Debating Society, the now-defunct underclassman wing of the Philodemic Society. He quickly displayed his argumentative skill, winning the Edward Douglass White Medal — named for the other Supreme Court justice who was a member of Philodemic — as the best debater in a 1954 tournament held among freshmen and sophomores in the society.
Throughout his four years, Scalia was one of the best debaters in the society: He held leadership positions, including the presidency of the Gaston-White Society his sophomore year, and often propelled the team to victories at travel tournaments, including the prestigious Hall of Fame tournament at New York University in both his sophomore and senior years.
Yet detailed records of Scalia’s involvement in the society are sparse, an anomaly for an organization that prides itself on recordkeeping. During his nomination process to the Supreme Court, Scalia redacted all addresses that he gave on the floor.
“We’re not able to go back and see what he argued for and against,” Philodemic Society President Asha Thanki (SFS ’17) said. “I guess maybe he thought that that would have played into his appointment and what people thought of him. I think this is a big deal. We take notes on everything, and it’s a big deal that what you say on the floor, you are held to.”
Tidbits of his speeches from the time survive. William McBride (CAS ’59), a former editor-in-chief of The Hoya, recalled an oratory Scalia regularly gave for contests.
“The line that I will, for some reason, always remember from that speech had to do with his pointing out that the swallows always return on the same day (March 19) to San Juan Capistrano,” McBride wrote in an email to The Hoya. “There was obviously a religious message here.”
A lover of the opera with a flair for the dramatic — a certain June 2015 dissenting opinion responding to a ruling on the Affordable Care Act featuring “jiggery-pokery” and “pure applesauce” comes to mind — Scalia was also president of the Mask & Bauble Dramatic Society as a sophomore and performed with the troupe throughout his years on campus. Featured in plays such as “The Night of January 16th” and “Heaven Can Wait,” Scalia won tidbits of praise for his performances in reviews by The Hoya.
“Nino Scalia, who doubled in the drama, was equally convincing in both his roles,” Dave Boltz (CAS ’57) wrote in a review of “January 16th.”
In his senior year for a performance of “The First Legion,” a play about the Jesuits, Scalia played the role of Rev. Mark Ahern, S.J., who was described as “a vigorous and virile character who is something of a romantic individual” (The Hoya, Oct. 23, 1956, A1) — a description that would likely have amused the notoriously self-deprecating Scalia.
The part was fitting, though, as Scalia — a staunch, lifelong Catholic — had himself considered the priesthood at one point.
“I was in a class with him taught by a Jesuit who would later go on to be dean of the school,” said Walt Reilly (CAS ’57), who lived across the hall from Scalia as a freshman in Ryan Hall. “Nino challenged him on some religious dogma, and it was fascinating to see that Nino knew more about the history of the church law than the Jesuit did.”
Scalia’s Catholic upbringing collided with his interest in the law, playing a large role in his firm belief in conservative principles from an early age. Kevin Robb (CAS ’58), a friend of Scalia’s who succeeded him as valedictorian and a captain in the Philodemic Society, said the two frequently discussed St. Thomas Aquinas and his structured theology.
“It was a very intellectual interest in Nino’s case. He was interested in theological history, distinctions in Thomas Aquinas between existence and essence,” Robb said. “Although he went to mass, and he prayed, he wasn’t ostentatious about it.”
As valedictorian, Scalia gave the Cohonguroton Oration, reprinted in the Georgetown University College Journal with the editors offering only the simple inscription, “We feel that it is one of the finest in recent years.”
In the address, a plea for the graduates to “head the quest for truth,” Scalia lingered — already — on the impact of the past.
“We have not been alone in our hunt,” Scalia said. “We have been aided by the stories of the hunts that others made, the great pathfinders in the forest of the mind, long long ago and far away from us. From their successes we have learned, and from their failures profited.”
“Get Over It”
Upon graduation, Scalia ventured north to Harvard Law School, where he was an editor for the Harvard Law Review, graduating magna cum laude in 1960. After a stint at an international law firm and as a law professor at the University of Virginia, Scalia served in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford before returning to academia at the University of Chicago Law School in 1977.
Scalia taught at the university for five years, taking brief visiting professorships at Stanford and Georgetown University Law Center. Randy Barnett, now a law professor at GULC and director of the Center of the Constitution, met Scalia while a law student at Northwestern University.
“He was a very engaging and entertaining member of the faculty,” Barnett said.
In 1982, Ronald Reagan nominated Scalia for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, generally considered a breeding ground for future Supreme Court justices. (Merrick Garland and Sri Srinivasan, potential nominees to fill Scalia’s vacancy, currently serve on this court.) Scalia fulfilled this destiny in 1986 when the Senate unanimously confirmed him to the nation’s highest court in a 98-0 vote during Reagan’s presidency.
True to his debating and theater roots, Scalia injected the often-sedate oral arguments with vibrant discussion, dissecting lawyers’ arguments from the bench.
“[My students always noticed] the rapid-fire engagement of counsel — how intimidating that must be, and also how quick and sharp he was,” said government professor Douglas Reed, who frequently sends students in his constitutional law seminar to observe Supreme Court hearings. “Oral arguments are a little bit like theater and a little bit like debate. There’s the gamesmanship of the stylized encounter, and he loved it.”
As an originalist in Constitutional interpretation and textualist in legal interpretation, Scalia established himself as the intellectual leader of the conservative bloc of the court, according to GULC professor Paul Rothstein, much of whose work centers on judicial processes.
“Scalia was the most articulate and the cleverest of the conservatives on the court, and moved the court more in the direction of his thinking, which is that the Constitution is less flexible than the liberals think, and that you should stick a little closer to what the drafters thought fairly literally, and not just trying to determine the spirit of what the drafters wanted,” Rothstein said.
Barnett, who teaches a course on originalism at the Law Center, credits Scalia with breathing life into the originalist movement by arguing that followers of the movement should look at the public meaning of the text at the time of its drafting, rather than the original framers’ intent.
“We’re all seeking a truth, not a preference about what we want it to say, but a truth about what it did say,” Barnett said.
Scalia’s contribution to originalism culminated with the case of District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, where he wrote the majority opinion interpreting the Second Amendment as a protection of the individual’s ability to possess firearms for self-defense.
“It’s not up to me to decide what is justice and what is law,” Scalia said in a November 2015 address at GULC on the role of judges. “I can’t tell you how often I reach results that I don’t like.”
However, Scalia drew criticism for a perceived inconsistency in his application of originalist principles, claiming that he only used it in support of decisions he politically supported.
“There were certain cases where, if the historical record wasn’t clear or bright, he wouldn’t be opposed to relying on something other than the historical determinants that led to the text,” Reed said.
Beyond inconsistency, Scalia, even after death, remains an intensely polarizing figure, criticized for his positions that often cleanly line up with conservative politics: rejection of gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, criticism of affirmative action in the hearings on Fisher v. University of Texas and the certification of the 2000 election in Bush v. Gore. Scalia was asked about the last so many times at law schools that in a 2012 CNN interview he said, “Get over it.”
“He was limited in his effectiveness because he wasn’t much of a centrist,” Reed said. “Because he was one of the anchors of the conservative wing of the court, it became harder and harder for him to bridge the divide.”
Ideologically, Scalia justified his regular application of conservative principles through an appeal to democracy over what he thought was an undemocratic judicial process: In the Cruzan v. Missouri case, the justice famously argued that the nine Supreme Court justices had no more informed opinion that nine people chosen at random in a Kansas City phone book.
“He articulated that there are many issues judges shouldn’t be involved in, that the political process should be allowed to go forward, even if that might have intruded on the rights of political minorities,” Reed said.
In an email to the GULC community, law professor Gary Peller criticized the lionization of Scalia.
“[Scalia] was not a legal figure to be lionized or emulated by our students. He bullied lawyers, trafficked in the personal humiliation of advocates and openly sided with the party of intolerance in the ‘culture wars’ he often invoked,” Peller wrote. “As an academic institution, I believe that we should be wary of contributing to the mystification of people because of the lofty official positions they achieved.”
“Why Don’t You Go Quietly?”
Scalia always believed that his rejection from Princeton was a result of his Sicilian and Catholic background, rather than failure on his part — although this never translated into support for affirmative action. Despite the perceived slight, Scalia was reportedly never unhappy with his time at Georgetown, instead crediting its instrumental role in his development.
“He always expressed his gratitude for his Jesuit education,” former Georgetown President Fr. Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J., (CAS ’57) said. “He thought he had been offered a very good education, and heaven knows he took great advantage of it.”
Never afraid to speak his mind, Scalia expressed worry about the integrity of Georgetown’s Catholic identity, wondering, for example, why students were no longer required to go on retreats.
“He was not shy about his criticism of Georgetown over a long period of time, and he was never shy about letting me know about a variety of issues regarding our Catholic identity. But he was unfailingly respectful and polite to me in sharing those perspectives,” DeGioia said. “I always knew where I stood with him.”
As associate justice, Scalia paid special attention to law students, particularly in his vigorous dissents. In his November address at GULC, Scalia claimed dissents at the Supreme Court were only useful as tools of study and thus tried to make them “clear” and “interesting.”
“You’ve had your chance. You’ve lost. Why don’t you go quietly?” Scalia said. “The kids in law school, I think there’s still a chance. That’s who I write my dissents for.”
His relationship with the Law Center demonstrated that care. Barnett took his “Originalism in Theory and Practice” course to visit Scalia in his chambers for the past few summers and was also planning a weeklong originalism “boot camp” for May of this year, featuring discussions with Scalia and fellow Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Scalia frequently visited classes as a guest speaker and gave lectures to the university community on multiple occasions.
“I am deeply grateful for his remarkably generous involvement in our community,” Treanor said in a statement. “He cared passionately about the profession, about the law and about the future, and the students who were fortunate enough to hear him will never forget the experience.”
“Sundays in Lent Don’t Count”
Scalia died only weeks short of his 80th birthday and is survived by his wife, Maureen, and nine children. One of the most touching tributes in the wake of his passing came from one of his closest friends and ideological opposite, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“We were best buddies,” Ginsburg wrote in her public tribute to Scalia. “He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh.”
Descriptions of Scalia universally touch on these two points: The man was brilliant, and the man was funny. The former has thus far been easy to illustrate; his wit, on the other hand, is more difficult to capture.
As two Italians, DeGioia recalled being seated with Scalia frequently at St. Patrick’s Day dinners; Scalia, whose wife is Irish, once gave the opening speech and justified his appearance by referencing his “four-and-a-half Irish children.”
Robb, who had conducted a study of St. Peter’s Basilica, recounted a trip to Rome with Scalia where the justice asked for a tour of the structure.
“I thought, ‘Well, I guess, I could go out of my way and do that, Nino, but what are you bringing to the table, quid pro quo?’” Robb said. “And he thought about it for a minute and said, ‘Well, I could get us a private audience with the Pope.’”
Perhaps the best summation of Scalia came from a dinner O’Donovan had with the justice and his wife on a Sunday in Lent — the most important day of the week during the season. Having given up alcohol for Lent, O’Donovan asked for water.
“He said, ‘Oh, Sundays in Lent don’t count!’” O’Donovan recalled. “He was never a man uncertain of his opinions.”
Hoya Staff Writers Suzanne Monyak and Mallika Sen contributed reporting.