The following is an interview with journalist and author James Rosen about his new book “Scalia: Rise to Greatness, 1936-1986” (Regnery Publishing, March 2023).
DW: James, you’ve written several biographies about other Washington power brokers (John Mitchell, Dick Cheney). What attracted you to Justice Scalia?
Rosen: My work on “Scalia: Rise to Greatness, 1936-1986” can, in a sense, be traced back to my high school years, in the 1980s, when I first saw Justice Scalia on PBS’s “The Constitution: That Delicate Balance.” It was a periodic show where a moderator, usually Fred Friendly, a former president of CBS News, explored hypothetical crises with a panel of eminent guests (e.g., Scalia, Sandra Day O’Connor, Gerald Ford) in a theater-in-the-round setting before a live audience.
Scalia struck me, immediately and unmistakably, as different from the other panelists: trenchant and humorous, clever and compelling. By the time I became a Washington correspondent, in 1999, I had read his Princeton lectures, collected in “A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law” (1997).
The ideas Scalia was championing were considered, at the time, revolutionary — or, more precisely: counter-revolutionary, a response to the Warren Court — but they made perfect sense to me, a non-lawyer. He argued that when judges or justices interpret the meaning of the Constitution or a statute, they should be guided by the original meaning of the law, what it was widely understood to mean at the time of its enactment, not through the prism of latter-day social or policy preferences.
To understand the law’s original meaning, Scalia argued further, the best evidence was not some floor debate, committee report, or other sound-and-fury ephemera of the legislative process; rather, the original meaning was to be derived, chiefly and decisively, from the text of the measure that was enacted by the Congress and signed into law by the president, an approach to Constitutional and statutory interpretation Scalia called “textualism.”
Again, to my layman’s eye, the notion that judges should rely chiefly on the text of a law when deciding its meaning seemed so … elemental … so obviously the correct approach, that any other amounted to mad flight from basic reading comprehension.
Upon arriving in the Capitol, I wrote to the justice, seeking an interview. Our correspondence over the next two years, humorous and revealing, and the pair of one-on-one lunches we shared at his beloved AV Ristorante — vinous, unforgettable, and off the record — convinced me I would write about him someday. While the discussions we had at those lunches will remain off the record, excerpts from our correspondence will appear in the second and final volume, “Scalia: Supreme Court Years, 1986–2016.”
DW: Rumor has it the young Antonin Scalia was a sharp student. Any validity to the rumor?
Rosen: This is no rumor — it’s documented fact!
Scalia was the only child of an Italian immigrant father who spoke no English when he arrived in America in 1920, but who became a renowned professor of Romance languages; and a mother who was herself the child of Italian immigrants and became an elementary school teacher.
The Scalias were devout Catholics. So from these early influences — the emphasis the Church placed on sacred texts, young Nino’s Jesuitical education, his parents’ devotion to the classics of literature and music — Antonin Scalia emerged with a profound respect for the inviolability of foundational texts. He carried this into his work as a jurist on the appellate bench and the Supreme Court.
Scalia graduated as valedictorian from his high school and his college, then magna cum laude from law school.
DW: You interviewed several of Scalia’s former classmates. What was their impression of him and his academic acumen?
Rosen: Scalia attended Xavier High School in Manhattan, a rare hybrid of a Jesuit academic institution and military academy. He delighted, in later years, in recounting for audiences how he used to commute from Queens on the subway with his .22 rifle slung over his shoulder.
A 1952 student newspaper profile of him – the first ever published – noted that Nino had “compiled one of the most enviable records at Xavier,” receiving 19 First Honor awards, one for each marking period, and the Gold Medal for class excellence every year. “His name,” the article said, “has become synonymous with exceptional accomplishment.”
The following year, Scalia graduated as Xavier valedictorian, his graduation photo showing a handsome, highly decorated cadet. “Nino” always remained popular with teachers and students alike. “He was a favorite of the Jesuits,” a classmate told me, “because he was bright and he was involved.”
Friends found Scalia unusually affable: quick-witted and self-deprecating, genuinely interested in others’ stories and problems. With endearing grandeur, Nino might commandeer a piano in someone’s house and lead an entire party in sing-alongs of show tunes or Christmas carols. “Classmates were intrigued by Scalia’s personality,” another early profile said, “a combination of scholarly seriousness and life-of-the-party gregariousness.”
Yet one of Scalia’s strengths was his enormous capacity for hard work. “People just competed for second,” a friend recalled, “he was just so superior academically.” “All my life I had been good in academics,” Scalia said. “I kept my nose to the grindstone.” The justice once said he did not “look back with misty-eyed mellow reflection upon my years at Harvard [Law School],” which he recalled as “years of really terribly hard work … I don’t think I have ever studied harder, especially during the first year.”
DW: You were able to get your hands on Justice Scalia’s early report cards. What did they reveal about Scalia the student?
Rosen: With the assistance of the Scalia family, I obtained the future justice’s report card from P.S. 13 in Queens, where he grew up. Of 45 grades recorded in nine subjects, young Nino posted 40 As, with five lonely Bs arising in four subjects (composition, geography, history/civics, and sewing), each swiftly redressed, in every case, with an A.
“Scalia: Rise to Greatness” contains the most detailed account of Scalia’s academic career in print.
DW: Scalia would go on to become a professor at both UVA and The University of Chicago. Were you able to interview any of his former students? Was there a common theme?
Rosen: I interviewed several students from his periods as a professor at the University of Virginia Law School from 1967-71 (the beautiful cover of “SRTG,” designed by the very talented John Caruso of Regnery, uses a rare photograph from the archives of a UVA student newspaper); and at the University of Chicago Law School from 1977-1982 (another rare image, in the book’s photographs section, provided by the school, shows Professor Scalia in his Chicago classroom).
Students recalled great displays of theatricality from Scalia, an avid high school actor; these included his running back and forth to opposite ends of the stage to act out the parties disputing a contract. One student shared with me, for the first time anywhere, what Professor Scalia said to his students on the grim morning after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy — as the class’s scheduled test went forward.
Scalia’s FBI files, declassified after his death, ran hundreds of pages: the results of four background checks in 14 years as Scalia rose through the executive and judicial branches. The agents recorded only excellent ratings for Scalia from his students. By many accounts, however, Scalia’s time at Chicago, and that of Maureen Scalia and their large family, proved less happy than the sunny experience they had enjoyed at UVA. While Scalia still drew excellent ratings from his Chicago students, there were some incidents there, and some criticism of him, that hadn’t been present at UVA. In between the two academic posts, of course, Scalia served in the Nixon and Ford administrations; so the frictions of the Chicago period must in some measure be attributed to a newly politicized view, among Chicago’s students and its faculty, of Scalia and his government service.
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James Rosen is a leading reporter, historian, and bestselling author. He is the chief White House correspondent for Newsmax, following two decades of acclaimed reporting at Fox News. His new book “Scalia: Rise to Greatness, 1936-1986,” is now available through Regnery Publishing, March 2023.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.