What Made Antonin Scalia Influential

4 minute read

On Saturday officials in Washington confirmed the death of Antonin Scalia, the conservative jurist who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan.

In June 1986, TIME’s Richard Stengel described how Scalia‘s background, upbringing and passion for an after-dinner sing-along brought the father of nine to the attention of Washington’s most influential judges and politicians. Three months after the story was published, Scalia became a member of the Supreme Court:

It is not your typical Washington dinner party. After dessert at the Scalia home in McLean, Va., guests are often found grouped around an upright piano in the living room. At the bench, banging out old tunes and, in his hearty baritone, leading the crowd of amateur songsters (which often includes such regulars as Justices Rehnquist and O’Connor), is the master of the house, Antonin Scalia, known to friends and family as Nino.

The evenings are evidence of Scalia’s engaging sociability, but it is his combination of affability and acumen, of energetic fervor and astringent intellect, that makes him potentially one of the most influential of Justices. The Reagan Administration could hardly have invented a jurist whose views are more perfectly consistent with its own philosophy–or a sharper advocate of that philosophy.

Scalia, a father of nine (“He always said he was going to have a baseball team,” confides his aunt), has a deeply developed philosophy based on the principles of strict separation of powers and a disdain for far-reaching federal remedies for social problems. He has a peppery prose style and an acid pen: he once called the Freedom of Information Act “the Taj Mahal of the Doctrine of Unanticipated Consequences, the Sistine Chapel of Cost-Benefit Analysis Ignored.” In a caustic critique of affirmative action, he facetiously proposed a system he dubbed “R.J.H.S.–the Restorative Justice Handicapping System,” in which individuals would be awarded points based on their ethnic backgrounds to determine how much they owed society.

Born in Trenton, the only child of a Sicilian immigrant, Scalia was raised in a household that was close, religious and intellectually challenging. His mother was a grade-school teacher, his father a professor of Italian literature. Scalia attended St. Francis Xavier High School, a Jesuit school in Manhattan, where he was an officer in the JROTC, directed the marching band – and played the title role in the school production of Macbeth. (“Don’t let the ribbing get to you,” he told the mortified younger boy playing Lady Macbeth, who still remembers this small act of kindness.) He tied for first in his class. He went on to Georgetown University, becoming valedictorian, and then attended Harvard Law School, where he made Law Review. His classmates remember the gregarious Scalia as being heavily influenced by his Roman Catholic education.

After graduation Scalia married Maureen McCarthy and spent six years as an associate with a large Cleveland law firm, where he expertly juggled a wide variety of cases. He left to take a job teaching at the University of Virginia Law School. In 1971 he became general counsel of the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy, where he resisted the attempts of Nixon aides to tamper politically with public television and began to develop his academic specialty, the rather arcane field of administrative law. After several years in the Justice Department, Scalia went back to teaching in 1977, at the University of Chicago Law School. Scalia’s high-profile, high-octane conservatism made him a favorite of the Reagan Justice Department, and in 1982 he was selected by Reagan to be on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the second most powerful court in the land.

Some of his recent decisions at the Court of Appeals highlight his distaste for what he calls the “imperial judiciary” and his abiding belief in Executive over Legislative power. Scalia was the probable author of the unsigned opinion striking down a key provision of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing law on the ground that the Comptroller General, responsible for implementing its trigger mechanism, is not under the executive branch of Government. An unwavering apostle of judicial restraint, he may give pause to conservatives seeking a more activist judicial agenda. As he wrote last year: conservatives “must decide whether they really believe . . . that the courts are doing too much, or whether they are actually nursing only the less principled grievance that the courts have not been doing what they want.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com