MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And Im Michele Norris.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia does more than just deliver strong opinions. His combative style on the bench tends to illicit strong opinions, also. But whether you find him infuriating or impressive, his influence is without question. A new book examines Scalias life. Hes the son of Italian immigrants, father of nine, grandfather of 30. It also explores how he developed his conservative views and his colorful personality. The book is called American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
The biography was written by Joan Biskupic, the legal affairs correspondent for USA Today. She interviewed Scalia 12 times for the book, which is 12 more times than the justice originally intended.
Ms. JOAN BISKUPIC (Author, American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia; Legal Affairs Correspondent, USA Today): At first, he said, talk to all my colleagues, talk to family members, talk to law clerks - and I did. But I wont talk to you because I dont want this to look authorized. And I said, just keep an open mind. Well, what happened, Michele, is I ran into him at a social occasion, and I had just come back from several trips to Trenton, where he was born and spent his early years. And he got intrigued by what I was finding.
And I found a lot about his fathers own immigrant story that the justice hadnt known. His father had come over here at age 15, didnt know any other language and went on to earn a Ph.D. at Columbia. And I learned a lot about his story. And that intrigued the justice. So, then he said, well, why dont you come in and start talking to me?
NORRIS: Were you pulling a bit of Hansel and Gretel on him? That you would just dole out a little bit more information in one interview and a little bit more in the second interview to keep him on the line?
Ms. BISKUPIC: That is a very interesting question because I never thought of it that way. But indeed, I was always bringing him something. I was bringing him documents from the immigration service that his father and grandfather had signed. I was bringing him things from the Nixon and Ford archives, the administrations where he worked. I was bringing him information to illicit information.
NORRIS: I want to talk to you about the influences in his life, how he became both the man and the jurist that hes become. How did the Sicilian immigrant experience shape his life?
Ms. BISKUPIC: Hes very much proud of that. He very much is the product of a first generation family. In terms of issues of race, for example, he will often talk about how he doesnt think that the Polish factory workers kid, as he will some time say it, but it could easily be the Italian factory workers kid shouldnt be put in the position of being on the downside of affirmative action for compensation to African-Americans and other minorities who historically have been discriminated against over time.
He at one point talked about how his father himself probably never had even met a black man early in his life. And here, yet, were in the 60s, 70s, 80s, a lot of policies that Justice Scalia felt were discriminated against new immigrants to America. So, that influenced him both as just the pride from the Sicilian background, but also some of his legal views that way.
NORRIS: I want to ask you about his Catholic faith and in one particular chapter in the book, its called passions of his mind. And in there you look at the dual passions that he has, his fidelity to the Catholic Church. But also his rejection of the notion that a constitution provides a womans right to have an abortion. Does one derive from the other how much are his views on abortion shaped by his Catholicism?
Ms. BISKUPIC: That was a very hard chapter to write because I do see them as two very significant passions. Some of his critics, for example, Jeff Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago, do say that one flows from the other. That his (unintelligible) in Catholicism has got to have a hand in how he feels about abortion rights. And Justice Scalia is very fierce in responding to this, saying, look, I am just reading the text of the Constitution. The Constitution does not contain a right to abortion. And Roe v. Wade was a mistake. It was wrong. It was a fraud upon America. He becomes very passionate about this.
And what I end up saying is that his views on religion very much mesh with his views on not just abortion rights, but some church state matters. And he will, to the end, say that these are parallel passions. They are not overlapping passions. And I let him have his say, but I certainly let his critics have their say, too.
NORRIS: Theres an interesting relationship between justices and the clerks that work for them, the clerks do a lot of the writing. Scalia does a lot of his own writing, and in his rulings, which one of them, do you think, gets closest to revealing Scalia, the man, his sort of core essence?
Ms. BISKUPIC: You know, I would think his core essence comes out not so much in the majority opinions, because those are the ones where he has to keep at least four other justices on board because you need five of the nine to have a majority opinion. So, Michele, Id probably say his descents. For example, his 1996 descent in Romer vs. Evans, that was a gay rights case where he was so furious that the Supreme Court majority took a position that favored gay rights.
And he has incredibly strong language in that about culture, about society, about the slide of society possibly favoring gay rights. Another one I would mention is the 1989 Webster case in which he talks so passionately about what the 1973 opinion, Roe v. Wade, has done to the country. So thats when you see a real glimpse of him not just on the law, but on his personal sentiment.
NORRIS: You get the sense in Washington that some people here become victims of their own personality. Someone like Rahm Emanuel is expected to bark very loud and tell people what to do and be somewhat pugnacious. Senator Byrd is expected to talk for a really long time every time he steps in front of a microphone. To what degree is Antonin Scalia a victim of the personality and the cult of personality that has grown up around him?
Ms. BISKUPIC: I actually do not think he could be anything other than what he is. He can become unhinged easily and its almost as if he cant help himself. I asked him about this Florida student who had asked him about not wanting cameras in the courtroom, but yet going on these book tours. And he said, oh, thats such a nasty question from you. I said, what were you thinking? Why couldnt you have just tried to get the audience on your side rather than lash out at this student and then have everyone think, why? What is he all about? And he said, well, you know, I was doing people a favor by even being there.
And I asked him about some of the comments he made from the bench. At one point, he referred to something that sounded quite stereotypical - tequila drinking Mexican. He said this from the bench and it got some criticism from fellow journalists. And I said, why did you say that? Did you know you were going to come in for criticism? He said, well, suppose I did, but - and I suppose I could have avoided it - but I was too good and it did get the attention I wanted.
NORRIS: Joan Biskupic, thanks so much for coming in.
Ms. BISKUPIC: Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: Joan Biskupic is the author of American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.