BOOK REVIEW: Today’s ‘most influential’ justice

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While Ms. Biskupic enlivens her text with examples of Justice Scalia’s considerable personal charm, she gives equal time to his lack of interest in compromise and his sharp rhetoric: “certain, contemptuous, clever.” She shows how his frequent use of sarcasm contrasts with the traditional civility of his fellow justices and gives the impression that he is playing to the gallery. As a new justice staking out positions, he showed that “not only would he have a difficult time pulling colleagues to his side, he might also alienate them along the way.”

Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote on a copy of Justice Scalia’s 30-page draft of his dissent in the challenge to a statute allowing judges to appoint special prosecutors, “Screams! Without the screaming, it could have been said in about 10 pages.” Justice O’Connor once responded to a Scalia tirade against hiring preferences based on sex and race with, “Why, Nino, how do you think I got my job?”

Ms. Biskupic summarizes her subject as “a product of his immigrant background, his traditional upbringing, and his devout Catholicism,” and observes that he has never tried to separate his constitutional views from his core identity.

His intensity on the bench may account for the quotation from Justice Ginsburg after she had served with him for a while: “I love him, but sometimes I’d like to strangle him.” Unlike other justices, particularly John Paul Stevens and the late Lewis F. Powell Jr., who came to oppose the death penalty, Justice Scalia seems to glory in his inflexibility.

Ms. Biskupic writes, “His position on the death penalty and, separately, on race-conscious policies endured term after term.” She points out that Justice Scalia’s opposition to affirmative action grew partly from his identification with a group that did not benefit from it: As the grandson of an Italian factory worker, the justice has repeatedly argued for the perspective of a white person subjected to reverse discrimination.

Ms. Biskupic predicts that Justice Scalia may now be at the height of his influence. She argues that the Supreme Court is unlikely ever to go as far as he wants on racial policies, and that Justice Kennedy would block any reversal of Roe v. Wade. Justice Scalia is also likely “to continue on the losing side of gay rights, courtesy of Kennedy.”

However, she says that Justice Scalia, with the help of Justice Kennedy and fellow conservatives, could yet help bring about more mingling of church and state and less government regulation of campaign financing. She predicts that Justice Scalia will also “continue to nourish his originalism constitutional theory and bring it to wider audiences.”

Ms. Biskupic is that rare writer who can clearly and concisely explain the issues in cases considered by the court while carrying general readers along with the human narrative.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean.

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