Justice Scalia’s Legal Rise: The Beginnings of a Remarkable and Beloved Jurist

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Scalia’ tells multifaceted story of his life up to his 1986 confirmation to the high court.

‘Scalia’ (photo: Regnery)


Rise to Greatness, 1936 to 1986

By James Rosen

Regnery Publishing Co.

500 pages, $39.99

To order: regnery.com

Back in 1959, when a young Catholic medical student announced that he was leaving his professional studies to join Opus Dei and become a priest, his shocked parents called in both a trusted Jesuit priest and a 22-year-old former classmate from their son’s Catholic high school.

The classmate was Antonin “Nino” Scalia, and he soon showed up at the Connor home in Queens, New York, for a heart-to-heart with his friend.

Bob Connor shared his plans for entering Opus Dei and then asked what Nino was going to do with his life.

“I am going to the Supreme Court,” Scalia replied, while noting his immediate goal of working in the Washington, D.C., offices of Jones Day, a top law firm.

“I will be sent to Washington,” he added, “and I will rise.”

The remarkable exchange between the two young men, recalled decades later by Opus Dei Father Bob Connor, has been brought to light for the first time in a new biography of the former justice, Scalia: Rise to Greatness, the first of a two-volume biography by James Rosen, chief White House correspondent for Newsmax.

And though evidence of the justice’s early interest in the Supreme Court will likely bolster persistent criticism of his alleged “careerism,” this sympathetic, multifaceted story of his life up to his 1986 confirmation provides room for readers to view his remarks as a prescient and sober acknowledgment of his destiny for greatness.

A Queens native who became valedictorian of his Jesuit high school and university through a prodigious work ethic and brilliance of mind, Scalia could be arrogant and even “mean.” But Rosen also documents the strong moral character that inspired and guided his courageous, often lonely efforts to articulate an “originalist” jurisprudence that called for federal judges to base their opinions on the Founders’ original intent for the Constitution and not be swayed by partisan priorities.

That campaign helped to launch a conservative legal movement that reached its crowning achievement with the high-court justices’ 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade, six years after Scalia’s death in 2016.

And unlike previous biographies, Scalia also gives significant weight to the interplay between his faith and legal vocation, as well as his role as a loving, if often absent, father of nine who let his brilliant and hardworking wife, Maureen, call the shots at home.

They were “fighting to raise us in the Catholic faith in an increasing secular world,” explained one of the Scalias’ adult children. “She supported him and stood by him so he could focus on what they both saw as his vocation.”

Queens Roots

Antonin Gregory Scalia was born in 1936 and called “Nino” by his family and friends. He was the only child of Catherine Scalia, an Italian-American elementary-school teacher, and Salvatore “Sam” Scalia, an immigrant from Italy who rose from his humble beginnings to became a professor of Romance languages at Brooklyn College.

Sam often spoke about the need for accurate translations, and it was he who instilled in his child a deep respect for the power of language.

The family lived in Queens, New York, and set a high bar for their child.

“Son,” his father told Nino, “brains are like muscles; you can rent them by the hour. The only thing that’s not for sale is character.”

The boy embraced his parent’s closely held religious beliefs and excelled academically at both the rigorous Jesuit-run Xavier High School, where students were drilled relentlessly in Latin declensions, and then at Georgetown University, where the faith still ordered daily life.

“If we will not be leaders of a real, a true, a Catholic intellectual life, no one will,” Nino told his classmates during his valedictory address for Georgetown’s class of 1957.

He went on to Harvard Law School, where he served as an editor of the Harvard Law Review, and met his future wife, Maureen McCarthy, an undergraduate at Radcliffe College.

The couple would move their growing family eight times, as Scalia left his first job at Jones Day, a white shoe-law firm, to teach at the University of Virginia Law School, one of three teaching positions at top law schools he would fill during the two decades before his appointment to the federal bench.

During this period, Nino also began a career in public service, with his 1972 appointment as general counsel for the Office of Telecommunications Policy in the Nixon administration and subsequent appointment as assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel in 1974 under President Gerald Ford, during the post-Watergate period when Congress sought to curtail executive power.

These posts gave the legal scholar an opportunity to practice what he preached regarding the separation of powers and the need to restrict government overreach. His service also brought him to the attention of GOP leaders who were impressed with his hard work, erudition, sense of humor and gift for friendship.

Legal Vocation

Maureen Scalia managed a good deal of the logistical problems posed by these job transitions and accepted the fact that a more remunerative post at a private law firm held no appeal for her husband.

“This was a man who had seemed to spend so much of his career looking for a job that would pay less than the one he had before,” she drily observed.

Making money, in fact, was never Scalia’s chief concern, and Rosen’s biography notes examples of his impracticality.

He was interested in the separation of powers, federalism and reversing the rise of activist judges who legislated from the bench.

At times, Scalia’s “blue-collar conservativism,” judicial philosophy and religious beliefs made him feel like an outlier at law schools like the University of Chicago and Stanford Law.

Reflecting on his time at Stanford, recently the site of obstructive student protests against a conservative appellate judge invited to speak on the Palo Alto, California, campus, Scalia observed that professors like him were “meant to feel isolated, lonely, like a weirdo.”

Yet he never backed away from these challenges and devoted time to promoting the Federalist Society, a professional association that embraced originalism and textualism. In the process, he helped form a new generation of lawyers, law professors and jurists that increased in influence, as Republican presidents began to nominate Federalist members to the federal bench, including the sitting justices that constitute the present Supreme Court’s conservative majority.

At the same time, Scalia resisted efforts to frame his jurisprudence as explicitly “Catholic.”

He also dismissed the notion that his Jesuit education inspired his legal philosophy, suggesting instead that his broad exposure to languages — “not just English, but French, German and Latin, Greek,” had made a difference.

These details on Scalia’s faith are inspiring and worth mention, but Catholic readers will be left hungry for more details revealing how his faith shaped his life, prompting intellectual insights and difficult personal choices along the way.

In 1982, President Reagan appointed Scalia to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. And four years later, his impressive record as an appellate judge was a key factor in Reagan’s decision to nominate him for the high court.

“He has written 86 majority opinions and only nine of them have been accompanied by a dissenting opinion,” noted Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, during Scalia’s 1986 Senate confirmation hearings. And the Supreme Court “has adopted his views six of the seven times his cases have been reviewed on appeal.”

Scalia’s ethnic working-class background also sparked enthusiastic support from Italian-Americans and helped snag the Senate’s unanimous vote to confirm him.

Legal Brilliance

For the boy from Queens and his family, the attainment of a lifelong dream was a moment to savor.

But the hearings themselves also showcased the deepening tensions between originalism and a radically different view of the Constitution as a “living” document that can be reinterpreted to overturn centuries of common law and justify legal abortion.

The closing chapters of Rosen’s first installment of Scalia capture its subject’s brilliance and magnetism as liberal senators like Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy repeatedly interrogate the jurist over his views about Roe and legal precedent.

Biden and Kennedy finally retreated, reserving most of their powder for the pitched Senate battle over the 1987 confirmation hearings for another originalist and Scalia ally, Judge Robert Bork.

Almost four decades would pass before Roe was finally overturned.

But as Sen. Jeremiah Denton, R-Ala., correctly predicted at the time, Scalia’s arrival on the court still made a real difference, rallying “the troops” until a seismic shift in the high court’s jurisprudence was possible.

The second installment of Rosen’s Scalia will likely flesh out Scalia’s impact, as he weighs in on landmark cases and often dissents from the majority opinion on sensitive issues like the power of the administrative state, religious freedom and same-sex civil marriage.

And this reader hopes that Rosen will also offer a richer, more comprehensive treatment of the faith that formed and fed the legal vocation of this remarkable and beloved jurist.