The Passing of a Fiery Advocate of the United States Constitution
Justice Antonin Scalia, known to friends as “Nino,” passed away in his sleep Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, during a visit to Texas. A government official said Scalia went to bed Friday night having told friends he wasn’t feeling well. After missing breakfast (and his hunting trip) Saturday morning, someone at the ranch checked on him and found him unresponsive.
According to the Washington Post, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara pronounced Scalia dead over the phone Saturday afternoon. Guevara told the Post she made the determination after law enforcement at the scene assured her “there were no signs of foul play.”
Guvara also spoke with Justice Scalia’s private physician in Washington. “He was having health issues,” she told the Post. Based on her conversations, Guevara determined Scalia’s heart had stopped, telling the Post, “It wasn’t a heart attack; he died of natural causes.” He was 79 years old.
In accordance with Supreme Court tradition, the courtroom doors have been draped in black following Scalia’s passing as well as the bench in front of his seat, and his seat itself. The tradition dates back to least 1873. The flags on the Court’s front plaza will be flown at half-staff for 30 days.
Justice Scalia’s Early Life and Education
Justice Scalia was born in Trenton, New Jersey, and was an only child. His father, Salvatore Eugene Scalia, was an Italian from Sicily and a graduate student at Columbia University. His mother, Catherine Louise (Panaro) Scalia, came from a family of Italian immigrants. She worked as an elementary school teacher.
In 1953, Scalia enrolled at Georgetown University, where he graduated valedictorian and summa cum laude in 1957 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. Scalia studied law at Harvard Law School, where he was a Notes Editor for the Harvard Law Review. His sharp writing skills earned him the respect of colleagues and adversaries, and his memos quickly gained notoriety as “ninograms.” He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1960, becoming a Sheldon Fellow of Harvard University.
Nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court
In the early 1970s, Justice Scalia served in the Nixon and Ford administrations, eventually as an Assistant Attorney General. A decade later, Ronald Reagan appointed him as judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and in 1986, nominated him to the Supreme Court. Scalia faced a few difficult questions during the confirmation hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee, but was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate. Justice Scalia was the first Italian-American justice to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. He was also the longest-serving justice on the Supreme Court.
The Case of Right to Bear Arms and Justice Scalia
It would take a library of books to discuss all the significant cases Justice Scalia presided over during his nearly 30 years on the United States Supreme Court. Undeniably, Justice Scalia’s most important constitutional decision was District of Columbia v. Heller, a landmark case declaring for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.
In 2008, the Court considered a challenge to the gun laws in the District of Columbia. Justice Scalia wrote the majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller. The ultimate ruling favored an individual’s right to own a firearm—even an individual not affiliated with state-regulated militia, as referenced in the Second Amendment. Scalia specifically traced the Second Amendment’s use of the word “militia” to support the opinion of the Court, stating that at the time of the amendment’s ratification, the word would have been understood to mean “the body of all citizens.” The Court upheld Heller’s claim to own a firearm in the District of Columbia.
Justice Scalia’s opinion for the Heller case Court did not sit well with liberals but was praised by conservatives.
The Political Debate for the Vacancy in the Supreme Court
It’s no surprise that Justice Scalia’s passing has sent ripples through the legal community for the loss of a brilliant legal mind. It has also creating a Court vacancy. His death launched a fierce debate over whether President Obama should leave the nomination to the next president-elect. The rumblings may be due, in part, over concerns that a new justice nominated by President Obama—an advocate of gun control—might affect future Supreme Court interpretation of the Second Amendment. The debate has also prompted speculation over what Justice Scalia would have said about the current vacancy. Many argue that Scalia, who was a strict interpreter of the Constitution, would say the Constitution is clear on this issue…that the Senate must vote on the sitting president’s nominee, regardless of the election set for November.
Honoring Scalia’s Memory
Regardless of political inclination, Justice Scalia was widely-admired by colleagues who say he was a true believer in, and advocate for, the United States Constitution and that his legacy leaves an indelible mark on American legal tradition.
“Both his admirers and his detractors agreed that Justice Scalia was one of the sharpest constitutional intellects to ever serve on the bench,” President George H.W. Bush said in a statement. “I considered him a personal hero, and Barbara and I were honored to call him a friend…. His death is a great loss for us all.”
On Feb. 20, Justice Scalia’s funeral mass was held for friends and family members only at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It was followed by a private burial. Father Paul Scalia, Antonin Scalia’s son, led the funeral mass for his father and delivered the homily.
Justice Scalia is survived by his wife, Maureen; their nine children: Ann Forrest, Eugene, John Francis, Catherine Elisabeth, Mary Claire, Paul David, Matthew, Christopher James, and Margaret Jane; and his 36 grandchildren.