Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the fiery conservative who used a sharp intellect, barbed wit and a zeal for verbal combat to fight against the tide of modern liberalism, has died. He was 79.
Scalia died while on a hunting trip in Texas, according to a statement issued Saturday by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Scalia was a dominant figure at the court from the day he arrived, and he could be an intimidating presence for lawyers who had to argue there. He had a deep effect on the law and legal thinking through his Supreme Court opinions and speeches. His sharply worded dissents and caustic attacks on liberal notions were quoted widely, and they had an influence on a generation of young conservatives.
But inside the court, his rigid style of conservatism and derisive jabs directed at his colleagues limited his effectiveness. Scalia himself seemed to relish the role of the angry dissenter.
As a justice, he was the leading advocate for interpreting the Constitution by its original words and meaning, and not in line with contemporary thinking. He said he liked a "dead Constitution," not a "living" one that evolves with the times.
Laws can change when voters call for changes, he said, but the Constitution itself should not change through the rulings of judges.
As Scalia saw it, the difficult constitutional questions of recent decades were easy to resolve if viewed through the prism of the late 18th century when the Constitution was written.
"The death penalty? Give me a break. It's easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state," Scalia told the American Enterprise Institute in 2012.
If such comments made him sound old, grumpy and out of touch with modern America, Scalia would agree and consider it a compliment. He said his job was to preserve an "enduring" Constitution.
He also had a comic's sense of timing. Several law professors studied the transcripts of the court's oral arguments and confirmed what a court observer would see every day. Scalia's sarcastic questions and his cut-to-the-point comments provoked laughter in the courtroom far more often than any of his colleagues.
In October 2011, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., a former lawyer before the court, marked the 25th anniversary of Scalia's arrival by saying "the place hasn't been the same since."
Before Scalia was named to the Supreme Court in 1986, most of its justices shared the view that the Constitution was a progressive document that promised justice and equality for all. They had interpreted it in the 1960s and 1970s as giving women equal rights — including a right to abortion — as forbidding official prayers in public schools, as requiring police to warn criminal suspects of their rights and, for a time, blocking the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment.
Scalia thought none of these decisions was correct. He said those rulings reflected liberal politics more than a faithful reading of the original Constitution. And he voiced his critique year after year, sometimes in angry dissents and sometimes in sarcastic comments directed at his liberal colleagues.
His tone was mournful at times. "Day by day, case by case, (the court) is designing a Constitution for a country that I do not recognize," he wrote in a 1996 dissent.
He issued thunderous dissents when the court upheld the right to abortion in 1992, and in 2003 when it struck down the laws that targeted the sexual activity of gays and lesbians. Then, he accused his colleagues of having "largely signed on to the socalled homosexual agenda ... directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct."
He predicted the ruling would trigger a national debate over same-sex marriage, and he was right. A few months later, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court became the first to rule that gays and lesbians had an equal right to marry.
A decade later, a majority of Americans agreed that gays deserved the right to marry.
During his first two decades on the court, Scalia was known mostly for his dissents. He broke with fellow Reagan appointees — Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy — because they refused to overturn the court's precedents on abortion, school prayer and the Miranda warnings to criminal defendants about their legal rights.
But after Chief Justice William Rehnquist died in 2005 and O'Connor retired a few months later, Scalia took on a new prominence as a leader of the court's conservative wing. Roberts, the new chief justice who was a generation younger than Scalia, deferred to him and often assigned him to write the court's opinion in momentous cases.
In what may have been his most important majority opinion, Scalia spoke for the court in 2008 declaring for the first time that the Second Amendment gave Americans a right to own a gun for self-defense. A lifelong hunter, Scalia said the "right to bear arms" had been understood as a fundamental right since the American colonies became independent.
Scalia also played a key role in a series of 5-4 decisions that struck down campaign finance laws and said that all Americans — including corporations and unions — had a free-speech right to spend their money on election ads.
Scalia was an old-school traditionalist. He was fiercely determined to fight a rear-guard battle against modern trends.
He was born in Trenton, New Jersey, on March 11, 1936, the only child of a Sicilian immigrant who became a professor of Romance language at Brooklyn College and a mother who taught elementary school. A Catholic, he and his wife, Maureen, had nine children, and he insisted that they go each Sunday to a church with a traditional Latin Mass. On Saturdays, however, Scalia liked nothing better than hiding in a duck blind waiting for unwary birds to fly overhead.
Nebraska officials pay tribute to Scalia
Nebraska's U.S. senators, Republicans Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse, both issued statements Saturday paying tribute to Antonin Scalia.
"Our nation mourns the loss of a brilliant legal mind and selfless servant of the law," Fischer said. "Justice Scalia lived a life dedicated to preserving and upholding the rights granted by our Constitution." She said she and her husband, Bruce, "join all Nebraskans in offering our condolences and prayers for the Scalia family."
Sasse called Scalia a "tireless defender of the rule of law," adding: "Justice Scalia's precise thinking, sharp wit and unwavering commitment to American constitutionalism will be remembered for generations. We are grateful for his service and heartbroken at this sudden loss." Sasse said he and his wife, Melissa, "uphold the Scalia family in our thoughts and prayers."
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., said in a statement: "I feel like America just lost her grandfather. Justice Scalia was a truly great man of enormous character."
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a statement saying: "Justice Antonin Scalia was a true public servant. He was a staunch defender of the Constitution, and for that America will be forever grateful."