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Scalia's Legacy: Polarizing Figure Known for Fiery, Colorful Opinions

Scalia testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It’s a bit strange to remember the Senate voted unanimously in 1986 to confirm Antonin Scalia, whose sharp wit, writing and opinions generated controversy and sparked plenty of partisan opinions of him over 30 years on the Supreme Court.  

He became known in recent years for his fiery and colorful dissents, full of language like “jiggery-pokery” and “pure applesauce” when criticizing a 2015 decision that upheld the health care overhaul law, or “legal argle-bargle” and “Kulturkampf” to describe his disagreement with majority opinions that protected gay men and lesbians from discrimination and legalized same-sex marriage.  

But such a Twitter-age caricature doesn’t capture the full legacy Scalia leaves on American law from the conservative wing of the court, and as the longest-serving current justice. President Barack Obama, who once taught constitutional law, said Scalia had a “larger-than-life presence on the bench,” a “brilliant legal mind with an energetic style, incisive wit and colorful opinions.”  

“He influenced a generation of judges and lawyers and students and profoundly shaped the legal landscape,” Obama said in a statement Saturday.  

Scalia drew the ire of liberals and the praise of conservatives for his originalist approach to interpreting the Constitution, so much so that Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida had called for “more Scalias” on the Supreme Court even before Scalia’s death Saturday. Scalia earned the label “conservative,” but one word can hardly do full justice to a justice’s legacy.  

“Justice Scalia was among the greatest members of the Supreme Court in our nation's history, and will long be remembered for his intelligent, principled, and tenacious dedication to our Constitution and to faithful interpretation of the law as it is written,” the Federalist Society said in a statement. “He has had an enduring impact on the way our country approaches law and the Constitution.”  

He was a fierce defender of the death penalty and opponent of abortion. He was hostile to affirmative action policies at colleges.  

“Justice Scalia and I had fundamental disagreements about how the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution, but we shared a belief that sharp debates, tough questions, and deep respect for the adversarial process was an essential part of our judicial system and our democracy,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said in a statement Saturday. “That’s how our rule of law — forged with the deep principles and convictions of justices, and laid out in majority decisions and minority dissents — becomes the model for the world.”  

scaliaquotesgraphic Scalia was notoriously unwilling to defer to legislative intent. “The Constitution gives legal effect to the 'laws' Congress enacts not the objectives its members aimed to achieve in voting for them,” Scalia wrote in a 2010 concurring opinion where he also called it “utterly irrelevant” whether the members of Congress intended something other than what was written in the law.  

“Anyway, it is utterly impossible to discern what the members of Congress intended except to the extent that intent is manifested in the only remnant of 'history' that bears the unanimous endorsement of the majority in each House: the text of the enrolled bill that became law,” Scalia wrote.  

In one of Scalia’s most notable statements, he delivered the majority opinion in a landmark 2008 decision in D.C. v. Heller that struck down a handgun ban, examining the Second Amendment to find a right to possess a handgun for self-defense in the home.  

“Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem,” Scalia wrote. “That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct.”