The Influence of Justice Antonin Scalia

With the passing of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia last week, the Meyer Van Severen, S.C. Blog takes a look back at how he influenced the Supreme Court over the course of his 30 years on the bench.

Appointment and Early Days

Scalia was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 after then-Chief Justice Warren Burger decided to retire. Reagan nominated William Rehnquist to become the new Chief Justice and then appointed Scalia to replace Rehnquist. The Senate confirmed Scalia by unanimous vote, something that is nearly unheard of in today’s political atmosphere.

Scalia’s Philosophy

In terms of his statutory interpretation, he is best described as a “textualist,” believing that the ordinary meaning of the statute should be the rule. He also decried looking to legislative history to assist in interpreting the meaning behind a law. Scalia can also be described as an “originalist,” someone who interpreted the Constitution as it was understood when it was adopted. This led to him joining numerous opinions that may have differed from his policy preferences. For example, in United States v. Eichman, Scalia sided with the majority in striking down a federal prohibition against burning the United States Flag. Additionally, many of his decisions related to criminal law went against his conservative background.

Scalia’s Impact on Criminal Law

His interpretation of the 6th Amendment has solidified the rights of criminal defendants. Early on, his views were written in strongly worded dissents. But as time passed, the dissents turned into majority opinions. He joined the majority in Apprendi v. New Jersey in 2000, a decision that required any factor increasing a defendant’s maximum possible penalty be submitted to a jury and not decided solely by a judge. Next, in relying on Apprendi, he voted with the majority in Blakely v. Washington which struck down the sentencing structure in Washington State as giving judges too much power. This track finally culminated with United State v. Booker, where the Court struck down the requirement that federal judges impose a sentence within the range of the federal guidelines. Scalia also wrote, in Crawford v. Washington, that criminal defendants have a 6th Amendment right to have live testimony at trial from the witnesses testifying against them, even when the accusations could be presented through other forms of evidence. This guarantee ensures that the accuser testifies in open court and that the defendant has the right to cross-examine the accuser.