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American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Hardcover – November 10, 2009

4 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The combative personality of conservative judicial firebrand Antonin Scalia comes through more clearly than his philosophy in this dense biography. USA Today legal affairs reporter Biskupic (Sandra Day O'Connor) notes Scalia's contemptuous chin-flicking at the media and relaxed attitude toward torture and other controversies, but focuses on his Supreme Court tenure through a thematic survey of prominent cases. What fitfully emerges, apart from a man confident in his views, hot in his rhetoric, is his hostility to affirmative action, abortion rights and the 'homosexual agenda' and a fondness for states' rights, executive branch authority and gun-owners' rights, all justified by an originalist interpretation that hews to the bare text of the Constitution as its authors allegedly understood it. Biskupic's critical approach highlights inconsistencies in Scalia's reasoning, particularly when he went against his usual states' rights position in the Bush v. Gore decision, which settled the 2000 presidential election. But the complex, murky vagaries of Supreme Court case law are not the best format for elucidating a judicial philosophy; Biskupic gives a full account of this influential figure's doctrinaire conservatism, but the originalist doctrine itself is harder to discern. 8 pages of b&w illus. (Nov.)
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From Booklist

Legal affairs reporter Biskupic brings 20 years’ experience and insight to providing a broad context to this profile of the most prominent and controversial of the current Supreme Court justices. Bright, articulate, and often confrontational, Scalia had promoted his concept of originalism, interpreting the Constitution from the original perspective of the Founding Fathers rather than as a living document adapting to contemporary circumstances. Initially, Scalia was limited to presenting his cogent and often bombastic arguments from a minority dissenter’s view, but with the appointment of conservative John Roberts as chief, some 20 years into his tenure Scalia now finds himself more often on the majority side. Yet his persona continues to mark him as an outsider. Biskupic examines Scalia’s life, including how he has come to hold his views. This is a must-read for those interested in the impact of a singular personality on our highest court—and to what end, only time will tell. --Vernon Ford

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books; First Edition edition (November 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374202893
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374202897
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #888,551 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
If this first-ever biography of the colorful and prickly Associate Justice were a New Yorker profile, it would merit four stars; if an Atlantic Monthly feature, three. It is an accessible and compact survey of Scalia's public writings and pronouncements, and of public commentary on them. But as biography, it is disappointing.

Biskupic devotes only 21 pages to the first 38 years of her subject's life--the very period the reader is most curious about. How can this be called biography? Compare the first volume of Robert Caro's life of Lyndon Johnson-- 800 deeply illuminating pages on Johnson's first 33 years.

The book offers few glimpses of the influences that shaped Scalia's thought and temperament. Who were the teachers, priests, and professors who taught him? What courses did he take, books did he read, bull sessions did he attend, course papers and letters did he write? He did years of ROTC in school but never served in the military; why not? He spent his junior year at Switzerland's University of Fribourg in what Biskupic calls "a yearlong academic and sightseeing feast." That feastful year gets 43 words.

What was his work during his six years at the law firm of Jones, Day? Hardly a word on this. His four years as a professor at the University of Virginia get only glancing coverage.

The book is drawn almost entirely from published sources. The author did interview the Justice himself several times, and a scattering of family and acquaintances, but collectively these interviews add only the faintest coloration to the public record. Most of Scalia's friends, classmates, and colleagues are still alive, and so loquacious a man certainly has left a lot of private writings and utterances scattered about.
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Format: Paperback
Having read this biography several times, I must largely concur with Mr. Kelleher's review. This is a good IDEA for a biography, but the end product is badly flawed. Ms. Biskupic, like many of Scalia's critics, and like many aminstream journalists who cover conservative thought, does not really engage with Scalia's ideas, or with his intellectual development. I was amazed that she does not even discuss Scalia's book A Matter of Interpretation. She talks about the influence of Catholicism on Scalia, yet does not discuss in detail what he studied at Georgetown or who he studied with. One reads constanly that Scalia graduated with honors in History. Which branch of History? Did he focus on American History or on European? Was he influenced by Georgetown's renowned and controversial Professor Carrroll Quigley? Scalia is usually seen as an "intellectual" conservative. What book and writers influenced him. We know that Clarence Thomas read Harry Jaffa and that William Rehnquist was deeply influenced by Hayek and Oakeshott. Who influenced Scalia?
In short, this book leavesa lot of questions unaanswered. It is a brilliant piece of inside reporting on court politics and personalities, but a superficial view of its subject.
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Format: Hardcover
Supreme Court reporter Joan Biskupic has accomplished a commendable feat of narrative art: to present in an engaging yet even-handed tone the legal, political, and spiritual perspectives that inform the jurisprudence of the Court's most controversial member. Scalia has been the subject of numerous books and articles which alternately laud or condemn his influence on the Court. Biskupic eschews "taking sides" in any partisan way and offers up the closest thing we have to a measured account of Scalia's life and his approach to the law.

Particularly commendable about the book is the fact that Scalia is a sitting Justice. It's usually very difficult for an author to remain tonally impartial when she is writing a "history of the present." Yet Biskupic manages to do just that, even when considering such recent events as Scalia's duck-hunting trip with then-Vice President Dick Cheney and the 2009 New Haven firefighters case.

One way Biskupic manages this task is to cite responses to Scalia's public statements and/or opinions from a range of perspectives, "liberal" to "conservative." Another way is to highlight both the consistencies and inconsistencies with Scalia's professed "originalism." But much of the credit should go to Biskupic's own narrative style, which is the hallmark not of "objective" journalistic reporting but of measured historical analysis. Reading her book almost feels like assessing the career of a highly influential jurist from the past. That Scalia is a sitting Justice seems incidental to Biskupic's larger project of understanding his life and perspectives in rigorous historical context.

I highly recommend this book not only to students of law and the U.S. Supreme Court but also to anyone interested in civics, legal reasoning, and the art of biographical writing.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
American Original is the latest judicial biography by the insightful and talented Joan Biskupic. Having covered the Supreme Court for many years for The Washington Post and USA Today, Ms. Biskupic has honed her remarkable talent for understanding the people behind the robes. With a fluid and engaging style of writing, the author shows how the justices' personal lives impact their judicial decision making. After successfully publishing a biography of Justice Sandra Day O'Conner several years ago, Ms. Biskupic trains her sights on one of our most intriguing and provocative justices, Antonin Scalia. Reading American Original provides an in depth understanding of the life events that shaped Justice Scalia's vision of what the Constitution means and how it should be applied. Ms Biskupic's research is informed by numerous interviews with not only Justice Scalia and his family but virtually all of the sitting justices, a remarkable feat and a testament to the writer's investigative skills. Lest anyone be concerned that this biography is "soft" on Justice Scalia, Ms Biskupic offers a balanced and often critical analysis of the Justice's decisions. What stands out in American Original is the fullness of Justice Scalia's pesonality. You may not agree with his philosophy but he is a larger than life individual whose intellectual prowess and engaging manner make him a compelling character.
To better understand the long journey towards a more conservative Supreme Court, one must read American Original. While it may be known today as the "Roberts Court", it had its genesis from the commencement of Justice Scalia's tenure. American Original is a book that everyone, not just lawyers, should read to understand the impact of the Supreme Court in our lives.
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