‘Character Is Destiny’: James Rosen’s ‘Scalia: Rise to Greatness, 1936–1986′

BY Jeff Minick TIMEMarch 28, 2023 PRINT

It is a simple truth that death and time often alter our opinions of the deceased.

His political opponents and many in the press maligned Abraham Lincoln during his time at the helm of government, yet today he is regarded as one of the presidential greats. During his presidency, Ronald Reagan experienced a constant barrage of criticism blasting him, for instance, for his “Star Wars” policy, but he is now credited as a prime mover in the downfall of the Soviet Union. Abigail Adams is better known and more celebrated for her character and accomplishments in our day than in her own. Emily Dickinson lived her entire life in obscurity in Amherst, Massachusetts, yet has long been considered one of America’s greatest poets.

Death gives us pause to reconsider the deceased’s accomplishments or, in the case of Dickinson, to uncover information and material that bring reevaluation and tributes. We frequently do the same regarding our own departed family members and friends, pushing aside their foibles and remembering with admiration and affection their words and deeds. “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,” declaims Shakespeare’s Mark Antony at Caesar’s funeral. True, yes, but then so is the reverse of that famous line.

Which brings us to James Rosen’s new biography, “Scalia: Rise to Greatness, 1936–1986.”

Stepping Stones to the High Court

As promised by his book’s subtitle, Rosen takes readers from Antonin Scalia’s birth, prefaced by some family information, up to the time he became a justice on the Supreme Court. Born in Trenton, New Jersey, Scalia attended a public elementary school in Queens followed by St. Francis Xavier High School in Manhattan, and another Jesuit institution, Georgetown University. After his graduation from Harvard Law School, he held a wide variety of positions, working first for the Jones Day law firm as an attorney, teaching law at the University of Virginia, serving in the Nixon and Ford presidencies, teaching next at the University of Chicago, and finally, before his Supreme Court appointment, sitting as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Antonin Scalia
Supreme Court Justices (L–R) Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, and Associate Justice David H. Souter at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, in Washington. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Rosen provides flesh and blood to the above bare-bones summary of the first 50 years of Scalia’s life, adding a multitude of details about the man’s performance in all these capacities, and the benefits and consequences they brought both for Scalia and for those who worked with him. For his material, Rosen researched hundreds of the justice’s writings and letters, and interviewed some 70 colleagues, friends, former students, priests (Scalia was a devout Catholic), and family members.

Along with Rosen’s cordial mix of politics, law, and anecdotes, these are certainly good reasons to read this fine study of the man. Perhaps the best reason of all, however, is what Rosen reveals about Scalia’s virtues: his love of family, his ethic of hard work, and his admirable character.

Family Man

Though an only child, Scalia grew up surrounded by a clan of Italian relatives, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. His father, a doctor of philosophy and professor of romance languages, was, according to one of the justice’s sons, “pretty demanding, pretty strict.” Scalia’s daughter Meg remembered her grandfather as “incredibly critical” of his son, jeering at Scalia, for example, for simply reading the newspaper comics as an adult.

Scalia’s mother, Catherine, was the kinder and gentler parent. “She was the prototypical Italian mother,” Scalia later wrote. In an interview with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, he said: “That was my mother, who I only realized later devoted her life to making sure I did the right things, hung out with the right people, joined the right organizations.”

Scalia brought this importance and centrality of family to his marriage with Maureen McCarthy. Described by Rosen as “petite but fiercely independent, intellectually brilliant, and impeccably mannered,” Maureen matched her husband’s devotion to the Catholic faith and was just as principled and outspoken in her conservatism.

Married for 55 years, the couple had nine children, and Rosen includes many reminiscences of their family life in his book. Though he was often absent from home—Maureen performed the yeoman’s work of raising the children and managing the household—by all accounts Scalia was a loving and fun-loving father.

Antonin Scalia
Antonin Scalia, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Maureen M. Scalia arrive for the State Dinner at the White House in Washington, on March 14, 2012. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

At a Federalist Society celebration in 2006, Justice Scalia asked Maureen to the podium. Rosen gives us this description of what followed:

“Mrs. Scalia smiled shyly and examined the floor as the justice described her as ‘the best decision I ever made, the mother of the nine children you see, and the woman responsible for raising them with little assistance from me. … And there’s not a dullard in the bunch!”

Nose to the Grindstone

Antonin Scalia himself was certainly no dullard, but that sharp mind was buttressed by a habit of hard work established in his childhood.

An early example of the importance of effort surely came from his father. Salvatore, more commonly known as Sam, was 17 years old when he immigrated with his parents to America. Grit, his “capacity for hard work,” and a gift for languages eventually procured for Sam a post as a university professor. For most of his life, he spent hours every day with a book in hand, often translating texts. He was, Scalia remembered, “committed to the life of the mind—much more of an intellectual than I ever was.”

Here the justice is perhaps being overly modest. From Xavier High School, for example, a tough Jesuit institution, he graduated at the top of his class. At Georgetown University, he was once again class valedictorian. He would miss that mark at Harvard Law but still graduated magna cum laude, which meant he had placed in the top five of his class.

Scalia’s long hours with the books explains these triumphs, and this same work ethic became one of his trademarks in his professional life. As described by Rosen, he often seemed a human dynamo, delivering speeches at various conferences, attending countless meetings, writing brilliant legal opinions, teaching students in his classes and the law clerks who worked for him, and still finding time for friends and family.

In 2008, Scalia said of gaining a seat on the Supreme Court, “I just kept my nose to the grindstone, and, I mean, that’s the secret.” Evidence would suggest that it was the grindstone and not his nose that took a beating.

A Good Man

“Moral character,” Rosen tells us, “was king in Sam’s eyes, prized more than intellect or wealth. ‘Son,’ he would tell Nino, ‘brains are like muscles. You can rent them by the hour. The only thing that’s not for sale is character.’”

His father drummed this lesson into the young Scalia, and the Jesuit priests at the schools he attended reinforced this message. As Rosen demonstrates, the defining feature of Xavier High was building moral character in its students. “Obedience to duty, manly honor and discipline, frank and forthright acknowledgment of error”: These are some of Scalia’s memories of what Xavier embedded in him.

The lifelong practice of such a code might leave the impression that Scalia was an austere personage, remote from others. Yet throughout Rosen’s book, we are struck again and again by the joy the man found in life and in others. He was, for example, great friends with Justice Ruth Ginsberg, who was his ideological opposite on the Supreme Court, and he taught another liberal justice, Elena Kagan, the art of hunting.

Scalia’s potential appointment to the District of Columbia circuit court required an FBI background investigation. Agents looked at every aspect of his life, from bank accounts to tax returns to interviews with friends and colleagues. He was given a perfectly clean slate, but what is most impressive are the comments made during the dozens of interviews of those who knew him. Rosen devotes four full paragraphs to citing comments such as these: “able to put people he meets at ease,” “good sense of humor … family oriented,” “a model family man, … his reputation … above reproach,” “quick witted with a warm sense of humor,” “the government could not have a better candidate for a position as a judge.”

Rosen closes his account of this FBI investigation with a remark about Antonin Scalia that most of us probably wish applied to us: “Would that every life repaid such close scrutiny with such superlative results.”

“Character,” said the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “is destiny.” We Americans should be grateful that men of character such as Scalia are still willing to serve aboard the ship of our republic.Epoch Times Photo

‘Scalia: Rise to Greatness: 1936–1986’
By James Rosen
Regnery Publishing, March 7, 2023
Hardcover: 500 pages

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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