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Scalia: A Court of One Hardcover – June 10, 2014

4 out of 5 stars 49 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Though he is widely considered the most outspoken and controversial member of the Supreme Court, Scalia has seen his influence on the court and his colleagues suffer because of those very characteristics. In this thoroughly researched biography, legal scholar Murphy argues that Scalia has adamantly chosen to be “right” rather than influential in pushing his doctrine of “originalism” in interpreting the law on everything from abortion rights to free speech. An unwavering devotion to traditional Catholic faith and love of a good argument have been the guiding forces in Scalia’s life. Murphy traces Scalia’s career of legal practice; teaching; service in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations; and working for a conservative think tank between administrations. Scalia learned the concept of strict originalism from his academic father, the Catholic Church, and conservative political philosophers. He honed his ideas while at the University of Chicago, working with Robert Bork and law school students to launch what became the Federalist Society. Murphy details Scalia’s behind-the-scenes angling to push himself as the leading advocate for originalism and to get on the Supreme Court. But his scathing critiques set him at odds with conservatives, most notably Sandra Day O’Connor, pushing many to the center. Murphy offers a highly engaged, well-researched analysis of a brash justice whose single-mindedness may ultimately reduce his legacy. --Vanessa Bush


"His biography of Justice Scalia is patient and thorough, alive both intellectually and morally, and written in fluid, unshowy prose. . . .It's a sensitive and scholarly reading of Justice Scalia's intellectual life. . . .This volume. . .functions as an M.R.I. scan of one of the most influential conservative thinkers of the 20th century." (Dwight Garner, The New York Times)

“A compelling biography of one of the most conservative, combative, and bombastic Supreme Court Justices in our nation’s history. . . . A terrific start to understanding Justice Scalia and his impact on American constitutional law.” (Kevin J. Hamilton The Seattle Times)

“[A] fair-minded biography. . . . Murphy's deeper and more scholarly focus on Scalia offers . . . an opportunity to study one justice's progress from the Reagan administration's great right hope to the more problematic character he's become.” (Paul M. Barrett The San Francisco Chronicle)

“May be the most exhaustive treatment of a sitting justice ever written. . . . Scalia is a skeptical, often critical look at its subject, but free of snark; it does its readers the service of taking Scalia’s ideas seriously.” (Jeff Shesol The New York Times Book Review)

“An intellectual biography of one of [the Supreme Court’s] most colorful members. . . . A lucid account of a wide variety of topics through the lens of judicial biography.” (Alexander Tsesis The Chicago Tribune)

“Thoroughly researched and accessible . . . a lively and informative account of Scalia’s upbringing; his education at Georgetown University, where he excelled in debate; his academic career at the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago; his work in the Nixon administration in the offices of telecommunication policy and legal counsel (in the Department of Justice); and his years on the bench.” (Glenn C. Altschuler The Boston Globe)

"In Bruce Allen Murphy, Scalia has met a timely and unintimidated biographer ready to probe. . . . In his view, understanding one of the most dazzling and polarizing jurists on the Supreme Court entails, above all, examining the inevitably murky relationship between judicial decision making and religious devotion. . . . Murphy does not shrink from adjudicating Scalia’s dueling public claims: that separating faith from public life is impossible and, at the same time, that he himself has done just that on the Court." (Dahlia Lithwick The Atlantic)

“Murphy does Scalia the unwarranted honor of treating originalism seriously but does not flinch when he gets to the bottom line: At least in Scalia's hands, originalism is not a method of judicial interpretation, it is a device to import his values into the Constitution.” (Jim Newton The Los Angeles Times)

"Endlessly fascinating . . . Scalia offers a deep examination of the man and his work, one certain to ignite the passions of partisans in our increasingly polarized nation." (Jay Strafford Richmond Times-Dispatch)

“A deeply probing biography of the controversial Supreme Court justice. . . . Murphy moves case by case in an evenhanded, thoroughgoing study.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“Murphy gives Scalia’s intellect and influence its due. . . . What is strong in Scalia — and what probably irks so many fans of Scalia — is that Murphy does a good job poking holes in Scalia’s strict textual interpretation of the Constitution.” (Tom Deignan Newark Star-Ledger)

“In the long run, will Justice Scalia’s legacy be that of a solo pilot as the title of this book suggests? Or will it be that of a jurist who reinvigorated an interpretive idea that launched a thousand jurisprudential ships? Will his unwillingness to build consensus at the expense of his orthodoxy be judged as an egotistical mistake or a principled advantage?. . . . Scalia provides a rich and needed body of information by which to begin to answer such questions.” (Ronald K.L. Collins The Washington Independent Review of Books)

"Comprehensively researched, accessible, and fascinating. . . . Recommended for friend and foe alike of Nino to undersatnd just what the Supreme Court is up to." (Library Journal (starred review))

“A highly engaged, well-researched analysis of a brash justice whose single-mindedness may ultimately reduce his legacy.” (Booklist (starred review))

“[A] penetrating biography. . . . Murphy's thoughtful analysis of Scalia's intellectual journey shows just how difficult it is to straitjacket the Constitution within a narrow interpretation.” (Publishers Weekly)

“A significant achievement.” (Michael O'Donnell Washington Monthly)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 10, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743296494
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743296496
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #225,192 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
There are currently two biographies of Justice Scalia, each with its distinctive strengths and weaknesses. The first was Joan Biskupic's "American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia" (Sarah Crichton Books, 2009). Biskupic's book is well-written, balanced, and based on extensive personal interviews with Justice Scalia himself, his family, and colleagues. It is not particularly strong, however, on Scalia's early life, his judicial philosophy, and his intellectual contribution.

Murphy's biography is longer, more in-depth, and more extensively researched than Biskupic's, but is less readable and makes no pretense to be even-handed. Murphy, a political science professor at Lafayette College, specializes in hard-hitting exposes of Supreme Court Justices. His earlier biographies of Abe Fortas and William O. Douglas, though useful and well-researched, spared readers no tawdry details of their subjects' flawed characters. This book adopts a similar kind of "gotcha" approach.

Unlike Biskupic, Murphy conducted few personal interviews. Instead, he draws heavily on public sources and archival records. The result is a scholarly but somewhat plodding and relentlessly critical biography. It is really the tale of two Scalias. The first is Scalia the Golden Boy: the gregarious, straight-laced Italian immigrant's son, who finished first in his class in high school and Georgetown, graduated Summa Cum Laude from Harvard Law School, rose quickly in his early career as a corporate lawyer, law professor, and government official, raised a model family, stayed true to his faith and his principles, and seemed to do everything right. The second Scalia is of the Golden-Boy-Corrupted.
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This is the fourth judicial study by Professor Murphy I have read. The three previous volumes I felt excessively focused on sensational dimensions of their subjects, especially the volumes on Justices Fortas and William O. Douglas (" Wild Bill"). Not to say these were not substantial studies, but the sensational elements detracted attention from Murphy's solid scholarship. I am delighted to say that I have no such qualms about this substantial (500 pages plus notes and bibliography) and extremely valuable bio of Justice Antonin Scalia. It is outstanding in a number of ways.

For me, the book's greatest asset is its meticulous analysis of how Justice Scalia developed his various interpretive theories--probably his most lasting achievement. One can read long articles on this topic, but what Murphy has done is to trace this development over time, context by context, as the bio unfolds. I found myself having a much more comprehensive understanding of Scalia's approaches (yes, he does "evolve" over time) than before. For Scalia and judicial conservatives generally, methodology is everything. Murphy also carefully differentiates Scalia's positions from those of Judge Bork and Justice Thomas, as well as others.

Murphy also tackles the toughest issue about Scalia--could he have been a more influential figure? On the one hand, clearly his originalist theory has had a substantial impact on how the Constitution is interpreted by judges, scholars, and others. Yet, on the other, his explosive personality relative to his Court colleagues has cost him the ability to become the conservative leader of the Court. Justice Kennedy and (Murphy suggests after the Obamacare decision) the Chief Justice may now rightly claim that title.
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I'm not ashamed to say that I am a huge fan of the work of the Supreme Court and an admirer of Antonin Scalia. For this reason, I eagerly anticipated Bruce Allen Murphy's book "Scalia: A Court of One" when I learned it was going to be released. After reading it, I have to say that the book is thoroughly researched and very well written. It is easily readable and keeps your interest through the entire book. It's one downfall (and why I didn't give it 5 stars) is that it is simply unbalanced, biased, and designed to malign Antonin Scalia in every way possible. This book makes this brilliant man sound like a petty, callous and cold individual who takes any opportunity he can to advance his agenda. While Mr. Murphy may have done scrupulous research to come to this conclusion, I, for one, refuse to accept his characterization of Justice Scalia.

The book describes Justice Scalia's beginnings, including his earlier years, upbringing and early education. The focus, however, is upon his time on the Supreme Court. It reviews his service on the court from the beginning and through the most recent terms. Throughout the book, Murphy takes the attack approach about Scalia's opinions, dissents, speeches, and public comments, highlighting the negative elements of all of these. He then goes on to make value judgements about why Scalia says what he says and acts how he does, and therefore brands the man as volatile and childish man, which I refuse to accept as true. One thing that is lacking in Murphy's character assassination is the attribution of his sources when he makes a specific claim. While I appreciate that he may have obtained his materials under confidence, it seems hardly possible that he is unable to tell us who told him ANY of the things he shares in the book.
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