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American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Hardcover – November 10, 2009
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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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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
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The author traces not only Scalia's personal and professional lives, but also casts some interesting insights into how (and perhaps why) Scalia developed some of his ideas--particularly originalism, his dedication to protecting and expanding presidential power, a strong adversion to "legislative history," his distaste for the "imperial judiciary," and (as the son of Sicilian immigrants) his opposition to affirmative action. The first four chapters chronologically follow Scalia through his childhood, into the Nixon & Ford administrations, his critical role in getting the Federalist Society up and running, and most interestingly, how Scalia positioned himself to appeal to the Reagan administration to gain important appointments (although he apparently did not hit it off with William French Smith and missed out on being Solicitor General). By the fifth chapter, he is on the D.C. Circuit and beginning his judicial career. An interesting chapter tackles his Supreme Court nomination where, surprisingly by today's standards, he was confirmed 98-0 by a GOP-controlled Senate.
Beginning with chapter 7, the author gets to the real heart of the book for understanding Scalia and his role. His inability to build coalitions such as Brennan and O'Connor could do, because of his refusal to compromise, reduced his impact on the Court where often he spoke only for himself. His tendency to scold (particularly O'Connor) also diminished his influence. It was not until the later conservative Republican appointees joined the Court (Kennedy,Thomas, Roberts, Alito) that Scalia began to find himself regularly in the majority. Individual chapters discuss racial issues, his pressing for weakening the wall between church and state, his moral views on issues like abortion and gay rights, and of course Bush v. Gore, in one of the best short (and analytically calm) discussions I have read. The author also discusses his failure to succeed Rehnquist as chief justice, his tendency to speak openly about issues likely to reach the court, and his domination of oral arguments.
Biskupic certainly discusses the views of those who have criticized Scalia, but fundamentally the book is nicely balanced. Unlike many judicial biographies, the author does not bury the reader in endless case discussions--rather she develops themes which facilitate understanding. Also she introduces various of Scalia's views throughout the book so that the reader can ingest them better. The book reflects serious research, with 42 pages of notes, many interviews (including several of Scalia himself), and substantial reliance upon primary sources such as the Blackmun papers (much as she did with O'Connor). I have never been a fan of Scalia, but I now so much better understand him and where he is coming from so that any future study of the Justice by me will be much better informed. You can't ask for more than that from a judicial biography.
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.