The making of a legal star
BOOKS | Scalia’s greatness extended beyond his law career
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Judges do not normally lend themselves to compelling biographies. Unlike men of action, such as warriors or presidents, their lives unfold primarily in the world of ideas, which can be awkward to chronicle and hard to keep moving. As Judge Richard Posner once observed, judicial biographies usually tell the story of the Supreme Court in a certain era, “unless the justice happens to be a person of exceptional qualities, which is rarely the case, or lived an exciting life, which is even more rare.”
In Antonin Scalia, James Rosen has found a subject worthy of a two-volume biography—a justice who lived a life defined by his exceptional qualities, not only of intellect but integrity, and whose public service, quick wit, and larger-than-life persona together make for actually interesting reading.
Scalia: Rise to Greatness, 1936-1986 (Regnery 2023) starts with the only child of a deeply Italian family growing up in Queens, playing stickball in the streets, and attending public school. Next came Xavier High School, a unique all-boys Catholic military academy. Scalia commuted on the subway in his cadet’s uniform, rifle and backpack in tow. Here Rosen finds much of the future Scalia—a sharp-elbowed debater with a flair for the dramatic. Top honors at Georgetown and Harvard Law School followed.
Most of the book traces Scalia’s professional career before becoming a justice, including his time in the Nixon and Ford administrations as a senior counselor and his professorships at Virginia and Chicago. The entire second half of the book occurs in the Reagan years, recounting his service on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and the success of his nomination to the Supreme Court (which the U.S. Senate confirmed, 98-0). Here in particular we meet other judicial luminaries, especially Robert Bork and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Volume 2 promises to pick up just after Scalia is sworn in, covering his transformational tenure on the high court.
Rightfully prominent in Rosen’s account is Maureen Scalia, mother of nine, every bit as Irish as Nino was Italian, every bit as smart and Catholic and conservative—and opinionated. Rosen recounts that the day after Scalia joined a Supreme Court majority opinion upholding the right to burn the American flag, he came downstairs for breakfast to find his house bedecked in red, white, and blue and his wife humming “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”
Rosen, a former correspondent for Fox News, writes a sympathetic biography. He does not begrudgingly acknowledge Scalia’s intellectual influence and search for its root causes—he genuinely sees and appreciates his greatness. That separates his book from the two previous biographies of the justice, by Bruce Allen Murphy and Joan Biskupic, both of whom had ideological axes to grind against Scalia. Indeed, if anything, Rosen occasionally annoys by taking side-shots at these competing volumes rather than remaining focused on his subject. Rosen also sometimes repeats stories or attempts a creative writing style that reads awkwardly, detracting from the overall narrative.
As Rosen makes clear, Scalia’s greatness extends far beyond his legal achievements. He was a man in full, with a deep faith, a robust family life, and a love for America. General readers are best served starting with Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived (Forum Books 2017), a collection of his speeches from across his life and interests. Scalia had his own unique cadence and style of speaking, and the assembled addresses are most fully enjoyed after watching a few YouTube videos of him so you hear his voice as you read his words. But for his fans in the Federalist Society and others who want a deeper dive, Rosen has given us the first half of a full, empathetic account of a life worthy of study.
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