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The Rise and Rise of Antonin Scalia

In Scalia: Rise to Greatness, James Rosen adeptly chronicles Scalia’s life from his birth in 1936 to the time he took what became known as the “Scalia seat” on the Supreme Court, in 1986.

(Image: www.regnery.com)

At a Times Square hotel in 1994, Justice Antonin Scalia sat a table waiting to address 600 Catholics at a communion breakfast. A waiter approached, not with scrambled eggs and bacon, but with a package supposedly delivered by FedEx, which did not deliver on Sundays in those days.

Scalia took the package, laughed, said, “It’s probably a bomb,” and pitched it unopened into the center of the table. “In a better world,” he said, “the people here would only vaguely know my name.”

It turns out the package was a petition asking the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. Scalia in fact knew what it was without even opening it; he could see around corners, and it seems he could do that since he was a boy.

In Scalia: Rise to Greatness, James Rosen adeptly chronicles Scalia’s life from his birth in 1936 to the time he took what became known as the “Scalia seat” on the Supreme Court, in 1986. It seems that Scalia was tagged for that seat from the time he was a golden boy raised in Queens, New York, his father an immigrant teacher and his mother the daughter of an immigrant. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but not by much.

After public grade school, Scalia was a scholarship student to then-prestigious Xavier High School on 16th Street in Manhattan, where he ranked first in his 1953 graduating class. He appeared on television as a high schooler, and folks remembered it for years. At Georgetown University, he was valedictorian in 1957. Harvard Law School followed, where he was an editor of the law review and graduated magna cum laude.

He made friends at Xavier that he had for the rest of his life. One of them, Father Bob Connor, a priest of Opus Dei, told Rosen that Scalia always had his eye on the Supreme Court. As young men, Connor asked Scalia how he would do that, and Scalia said he would take a job with a Cleveland law firm, get transferred to Washington DC, and then “rise.”

Two previous biographers claim that Scalia tailored his statements, position, and court judgments precisely to be considered for the Supreme Court by a GOP president. But one thing you learn about Scalia in Rosen’s book is that he was an independent thinker. On the D.C. Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court’s AAA farm team, he dueled with his old friend and colleague Robert Bork, a duel that harmed their friendship.

Scalia did indeed have a remarkable rise. From the prestigious law firm of Jones Day to the University of Virginia School of Law, then on to Washington D.C., when President Richard Nixon appointed Scalia as general counsel to the Office of Telecommunications Policy, where he played a central role in formulating policy for the nascent cable television industry. From there, he became chairman of the Administrative Conference on the United States, where he established himself an expert on administrative law, what we know now as the “deep state.” Then he was appointed Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel. Recall, the Watergate scandal swirled all around, but it didn’t touch Scalia. Posts followed at the University of Chicago School of Law, Stanford Law School; all the while Scalia waited for the main chance.

In his various posts, Scalia spent a fair amount of time testifying before various Congressional committees. Legal beagles will enjoy Rosen’s multiple citations of the almost always witty Scalia verbally fencing with Congressional poobahs. Scalia usually got the best of his puffed-up interlocutors.

Though Scalia was shortlisted for Solicitor General, President Ronald Reagan bypassed him. Rosen reports a disappointed Scalia was blackballed by Reagan advisor William French Smith. Reagan eventually asked Scalia to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and Scalia turned it down. He wanted the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the high court’s stepping stone, and Reagan gave it to him. A mere four years later, Reagan appointed Scalia to the Supreme Court.

Among the many charming things about Rosen’s telling of Scalia’s life is how he brings out Scalia’s full humanity. Scalia was not always witty and charming; occasionally, he was irascible. His friends told Rosen that Scalia fought with waiters. Once, at the swank Galileo Restaurant in Dupont Circle, Scalia was told he had to put out his pipe. Cigarettes were allowed, but not pipes. Scalia stormed out, leaving his wife and his other guests. His wife chuckled and told everyone to stay. They ate dinner without Scalia and headed to a nearby postprandial bar where Scalia was puffing away, waiting for them.

Scalia did not care for the sound of noisy kids in certain situations. There is a story about how he was annoyed at a baby making noise at one of his speeches. Scalia peered over his glasses and said, “Madam, remove the child.” But this occasionally irascible man had a true genius for friendship. His friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, is legendary and well-told by Rosen.

Though sometimes an irascible man, Scalia had a winsome way that allowed his legal theories and opinions into the decisions of judges on the left. Almost immediately upon joining the D.C. Court of Appeals, Scalia took a central role in crafting opinions, even those he may have dissented from. This is where his longtime friendship and collaboration with Ruth Bader Ginsburg was forged. The Scalias and the Ginsburgs often had dined and went to the opera together.

There is plenty in the book to whet the appetite of legal specialists. For instance, the story of how Scalia warmed to textualism and originalism rather than relying on things like legislative history to discover the intent of legislators. Arriving late to a 1970 lunch with Scalia, Senate Judiciary Committee staffer Michael Uhlmann joked that he had been busy “…making legislative history.” Uhlmann believed that Scalia had never fully considered just how unreliable and even phony legislative history could be. What followed, said Uhlmann, was “Scalia’s revolution.”

Putting aside the legal aspect of the book, what emerges is a wonderful family man, a loving husband and father, and a faithful Catholic. If you have ever had to chance to meet and know any of his nine children, including son Fr. Paul Scalia, you would know this to be true—though Scalia would say it was all due to his dear wife Maureen, who in many ways is the hero of Scalia’s story.

Yes, many of us remember the day he died. We thought all was lost. But, oddly, his death led the way to the totally unexpected overturning of Roe v. Wade, a decision he thought was a legal and moral abomination. Even so, he is terribly missed.

The rest of the Scalia story, from his appointment to the Supreme Court to his death, comes in an expected second volume. Write faster, Rosen, write faster!

Scalia: Rise to Greatness, 1936 to 1986
by James Rosen
Regnery Publishing, 2023
Hardcover, 500 pages

(Editor’s note: This review has been updated for the sake of clarification.)


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About Austin Ruse 5 Articles
Austin Ruse is the author of four books including Under Siege: No Finer Time to be a Faithful Catholic (Crisis Publications, 2021). He is president of C-Fam, a New York and Washington DC research institute in Special Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council and with the Organization of American States.

22 Comments

  1. The overturning of Roe v Wade is disastrous. Instead of solving the problem and providing care and support for unwanted pregnancies, this ruling has energized the opposition, forced abortion rights into legislation, and cemented the notion that the Right, including Catholics, care more about their personal biases than the rights of women. Abortion is a problem – by definition. An unwanted pregnancy that is forced to term is not solving anything. All this does is allow religious zealots to put a check in the box. But it does nothing to help women or the unborn. Look at the data – societies that restrict abortion rights crumble under the weight of poverty, and always shift the other way. In the long run, we will regret this decision. In five years, there will be more abortions than before this ruling. Already, women that have doubts get abortions as soon as possible knowing their options are limited. It is not a good thing – but I guess it soothes the consciences of Catholics in their protected towers.

    • You started out strong with “The…”, but lost the thread quickly and completely.

      “Solving the problem”? Roe v. Wade was a seriously problem; it was irrational, at best; certainly evil.

      “But it does nothing to help women or the unborn.” Truth always helps, even if it hurts or makes demands on us. And I write this as a father who has adopted three children and worked toward two other adoptions. Some of us actually put our time, effort, love, lives, and money where are mouths are, rather than just pontificating with vapid, emotive, insulting remarks in Comboxes.

      • Thankyou for the reply Carl. Perhaps I was not clear. I compare this ruling the same as shutting down a highway because it is dangerous and unsafe, but without providing alternatives. It does not solve the problem – it actually makes it worse.
        We now have an explosion of abortion by pill initiatives in the pharmaceutical community, legislation in blue states locking abortion rights into law far beyond what even the most radical liberal would support, and an energized base that will work to undo this unnecessary and meaningless ruling. Instead of forcing women to carry unwanted babies to term against their will – even in cases where they were raped or their life is in danger – perhaps we should work towards make unwanted pregnancies wanted. I don’t care much for the “you got pregnant, now deal with it” mentality, which this is.
        And by the way, congratulations on your adoptions. I myself have FIVE adopted children, and have fostered seven others – most through Catholic Family Services, of which I was on the board of directors in my state. With all due respect, I know what I am talking about.

    • So you’re convinced there is not only no such thing as a social ethos but, contrary to the beliefs of the Son of God, no such thing as a social ethos that will be elevated through welcoming greater moral challenges as a way of life, regardless of the difficulties encountered from hatred directed towards living this discipleship? And do you really believe people become more responsible with all aspects of their lives when they are encouraged by you and others to deal with their problems with crushing the skulls of babies? And when in human history did abortion societies produce stable family life, truthfully, without falsified statistics?

    • You know that there are more crisis pregnancy centers than abortion clinics in the US right now, right? This means you don’t get to falsely accuse people of not caring. Roe vs. Wade was indefensible legally and reprehensible morally. Overturning a decision that cost 65 million lives is a victory long in coming and long overdue.

    • As the birth rate is below the death rate your argument about history repeating itself is not valid. Also, once that “foreign creature” is eliminated, there can be daunting emotional/physical problems the ex mother faces. The abortion just makes the issue/problem worse. Everyone, including you and me, started out at the end of lifeline – there’s so much wasted potential in a termination.

      The cost of taking care of the elderly is a tremendous burden on families & society, yet most sane people don’t advocate their violent annihilation. Even W Buffett said that health care costs are the tapeworm on our economy. Frequent reports of nursing burn out are commonplace. Yet more and more money is spent extending lives a few months longer, while snuffing out millions of the future generations.

      I do agree with you that nixing Roe has made it worse already. MI had the Prop 3 pass so Whitmer has her anti baby project enshrined in the constitution, it looks to be. (Roe was flawed law)

      • Nothing would please me better than to see all abortions end. But making laws forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies is not the answer. Look at the data. The birthrate has fallen not because abortion is/was legal – but because of poverty. Poor women have abortions because they cannot afford to take care of their babies. Did you know that 60% of abortions are by women that already have children. Half of all abortions are by women living in poverty. A vast majority of abortions (75%) are by women near the poverty level (within 20%).
        Maybe the solution isn’t to outlaw abortion, but perhaps look at the root cause and solve that problem? Do you really think we are better off now?

  2. Not surprised it wasn’t published by New York firm. In law school you really couldn’t talk about Scalia; and Clarence Thomas was the personification of judicial evil. But both men represented true diversity of backgrounds and jurisprudence. Which is to say they were experienced, educated, thoughtful, and fine writers. They were also devout Catholics.

  3. Speaking of pontificating. Clearly, In the name of Christian charity. Arrogant selfish behaviors infringe on the basic human right of over 50 percent of the population. It is a poverty that women will die, so that You might live as you wish.

  4. It is my understanding that Antonin Scalia believed that all these laws are unconstitutional and should be struck down by the Supreme Court:
    1. Social Security
    2. Medicare
    3. Labor Relations Act (establishing rights of workers to form labor unions, to negotiate with employers, to strike)
    4. Federal Minimum Wage
    5. Federal Child Labor Laws (outlawing most child labor)
    6. Federal Overtime Pay Laws

    • “It is my understanding…”

      Are we to take your “understanding” as actually the thinking of Justice Scalia? We should count ourselves among the fools if we were to do so.

    • Whether he said it or thought it or not he’s probably right. There’s no constitutional basis for forced labor of working people to support the unrelated elderly – that’s what SS and Medicare taxes are doing. It’s forced because the person has to work more hours to keep their take home pay high enough, due to the deductions and their employer having to pay the match percentages (if they have to pay the government for you working there they pay you less to afford it)

      These social programs that cost money namely SS and Medicare, are not funded and the social security is like a Ponzi scheme. It looks nice on the exterior but when you check the detail there are many problems. It’s an impossible political beast to even mention, as most voters are older.

      I had a job since the 5th grade and it never hurt me, but it was voluntary. Many jumping on the EV train don’t realize slave labor is being used to harvest components for the batteries – read the book Cobalt Red.

    • If that is what he believed (and I don’t doubt that he did), then he was right. The Constitution does not authorize the Federal government to legislate in any of these areas. Matters such as the ones covered by the laws you list were delegated to the states. We’re way beyond the stage where this position can be argued practically anymore, but that is how the American political system was designed to work. By this time, it has probably been wrecked to the point where it cannot be repaired. We must try to salvage what we can.

  5. Destroying human life because it is personally inconvenient is not a human right, at least not in any civilized society.

    • Abortions are not about “personal convenience”, an obvious strawman fallacy. As I mentioned above, 60% of abortions are by women already caring for a child. Think about it – why would a woman who has a child already want an abortion? Clearly – and the data backs this up – she can no longer afford to do so, and sees the suffering it would cause. Does that mean abortion is justified? No, of course not. But we as Catholics must see what the real problem is. How about a surtax on all childless people – payable directly to mothers of newborns and children living in poverty? Would you support that? The greatest reductions in abortions has been during periods of economic prosperity – usually under Democratic administrations. I’m sorry, I want to solve the problem, and this doesn’t do it.

      • “The greatest reductions in abortions has been during periods of economic prosperity – usually under Democratic administrations.”

        Well, that couldn’t have been under Carter, or Obama, and certainly not Biden. Maybe Clinton?

        Actually abortions per year in the US have been dropping since 1982–and of course 22 of those 41 years have been GOP presidents. And let’s not forget that the 1980s were a boom decade, no thanks to Dems.

        That said, more taxes and more federal involvement are not the solution, in large part because they are rarely the solution to anything.

        In fact, abortion numbers remains high in black communities in large part because federal programs over the decades (certainly from the 1960s onward) have helped decimate two-parent families.

        Fatherhood, then, is a huge issue here. And that is affected/driven by a number of factors (sense of responsibility, fidelity, etc) that flow from cultural, religious, social roots.

        Throwing more money at these issues, no matter complex or even unfair they are or appear, won’t work. This comes down to moral choices, community support, personal commitment, etc.

        Sadly, I think things will get a lot worse before they get better. And that is not the fault of “Dobbs”.

      • From what I understand, pressure from the male involved is often an instigator but I don’t know the percentage.

        Yet someone my coworker told me about had an affair, and got pregnant. She told her husband who wanted to raise the baby, “as their own.” so she went out and aborted it.

        I would say B control and working women are the reason for much of the birthrate decline; young people not even dating as much I was just reading about.

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