American Original

Title: American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia
Published by: Sarah Crichton Books


If the U.S. Supreme Court teaches us anything, it is that almost everything is open to interpretation. But what’s inarguable is that, while the Court has witnessed a succession of larger-than-life jurists in its two-hundred-plus-year history, it has never seen the likes of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Combative yet captivating, infuriating yet charming, the outspoken jurist remains a source of curiosity to observers across the political spectrum and on both sides of the ideological divide. And after nearly a quarter century on the bench, Scalia may be at the apex of his power. Agree with him or not, Scalia is "the justice who has had the most important impact over the years on how we think and talk about law," as Harvard Law School dean Elena Kagan, now U.S. solicitor general, once put it.

Scalia electrifies audiences: to hear him speak is to remember him; to read his writing is to find his phrases permanently affixed to one’s mind. But for all his public grandstanding, Scalia has managed to elude biographers – until now. In American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the veteran Washington journalist Joan Biskupic presents for the first time a detailed portrait of this complicated figure and provides a comprehensive narrative that will engage Scalia’s adherents and critics alike. Drawing on her long tenure covering the Court and on unprecedented access to the justice, Biskupic delves into the circumstances of his rise and the formation of his rigorous approach on the bench. Beginning with the influence of Scalia’s childhood in a first-generation Italian American home, American Original takes readers through his formative years, his role in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and his trajectory through the Reagan Revolution. Biskupic’s careful reporting culminates with the tumult of the contemporary Supreme Court – where it was and where it’s going, with Scalia helping to lead the charge.

Even as Democrats control the current executive and legislative branches, the judicial branch remains rooted in conservatism. President Obama will likely appoint several new justices to the Court – but it could be years before those appointees change the tenor of its decisions. With his keen mind, authoritarian bent, and contentious rhetorical style, Scalia is a distinct and persuasive presence, and his tenure is far from over. This book shows us the man in power: his world, his journey, and the far-reaching consequences of a transformed legal landscape."

Praise & Reviews

“It’s hard to write a fair-minded biography of such a polarizing figure, but that’s what Joan Biskupic has done with ‘American Original.’ … [I]n her impressively balanced and well reported book, Biskupic, who previously wrote a biography of Sandra Day O’Connor, gives Scalia his due. … By letting Scalia describe himself in his own words, Biskupic offers a profile of a man who, at the age of 73, sometimes appears smug and self-satisfied — adjectives he has used to describe critics of using torture in the war on terror — but not especially self-aware.”
—Jeffrey Rosen, The New York Times Book Review (Read the full review)

“The masterful new biography of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by Joan Biskupic, who has covered the court for two decades for the Washington Post and USA Today, is a riveting portrait of one of the most brilliant, outspoken and unabashedly controversial justices in U.S. history. Biskupic tells the story of a bigger-than-life jurist who is leaving a decidedly conservative imprint on the court. Her book is most noteworthy, however, because she captures the real Scalia, warts and all.”
Ken Gormley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, (Read the full review); Philadelphia Inquirer (Read the full review)

"Joan Biskupic has done it again. Having hit a home run in her fine biography of the quintessential centrist justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, Biskupic has now hit it far out of the park with her elegant, insightful, and eminently readable account of the life and constitutional views of the most colorful justice on the Supreme Court’s right wing. For anyone who wants to understand the most influential and interesting voice of the most powerful movement in contemporary American law, this book is a must read."
—Laurence H. Tribe, Carl M. Loeb University Professor, Harvard Law School

"The book’s real charm, however, lies in her treatment of the man. She traces the important influences on Scalia—the lessons from his immigrant parents, the centrality of his Catholic faith, the early professional experiences in the Nixon justice department—and offers a portrait of a man quite unlike any other judge. Especially against the decorous backdrop of the Supreme Court, Scalia stands out for his brashness in argument, his clever, sometimes contemptuous, prose and his willingness to express opinions in a variety of public forums. Biskupic acknowledges his intellectual brilliance but criticizes him for his tetchiness with the press, for his seeming inability to concede at least the appearance of conflicts of interest and for his willingness to depart from originalism—Bush v. Gore, anyone?—when it appears to serve his own political inclinations. Legal scholars have written more about Scalia than any other living Justice. Now, in terms of accessibility for the general reader, Biskupic gives the rest of us an inside look at what the fuss is all about . . . Every bit as provocative and entertaining as the man himself."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Biskupic has written a biography filled with fire, a book almost certain to anger Scalia's fans on many pages because she offers candid assessments of his flaws, as well as his strengths. Scalia's detractors will find lots of material with which to demonize him even further. Scalia styles himself a jurist forever true to the original intent of the Constitution's framers when writing his court opinions. Biskupic's tireless reporting demonstrates something else: Scalia's hypocrisy. She also depicts, convincingly, his gigantic ego and his intentional meanness. On the positive side, she shows his considerable intellect, his dynamic storytelling during public appearances and private parties and his love of family. … The book is not so much an exposé written by Biskupic as one written by Scalia himself; she is often just the transmitter. Biskupic presents information allowing Scalia to hang himself."
—Steve Weinberg, Dallas Morning News (Read the full review)

"Joan Biskupic began covering the Supreme Court in 1989, three years after Scalia joined the Court. One might have expected her to pull a punch or two in American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia so as not to be shut out of the most interesting chambers. But while American Original is no scathing critique, neither is it an easy endorsement. Biskupic clearly admires Scalia's pluck: on a beat where dry written opinions and aversion to the press are commonplace, he stands out as brash, funny, outspoken and controversial--a walking headline machine. But she dislikes his inconsistent jurisprudence, devoting an entire chapter to Bush v. Gore, as well as the caustic and sarcastic tone of his writing, which has only become sharper and more pronounced over the years, eroding the collegiality of the Court and leaving Scalia increasingly alone in dissent. … In light of the justices' reluctance to criticize one another personally, Biskupic also obtained several surprisingly candid observations made by Scalia's colleagues about his negative influence on the Court."
—Michael O'Donnell, The Nation (Read the full review)

" … Scalia is, as Joan Biskupic illustrates in this capable, intriguing biography, gregarious and kind, delighted by intellectual combat, energized by his work and beloved by his family and acolytes. … American Original: The Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is full of strong reporting. It is scrupulously even-handed, which may irritate partisans on both sides of the Scalia divide -- there are few fence-straddlers when it comes to him."
—Jim Newton, Los Angeles Times (Read the full review)

"Until now Scalia has not been the subject of a full-scale biography that is intellectually rigorous, yet accessible to the general reader. Joan Biskupic, the legal affairs correspondent for USA Today, has filled the gap nicely. “American Original: the Life and Constitution of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’’ is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand this jurist. Biskupic, who had access to Scalia and his family, makes the most of her material. The reader comes away with an understanding of the political, social, and pre-Vatican II Catholic culture in which Scalia grew up and how it shaped his world view."
Claude R. MarxBoston Globe (Read the full review)

"Joan Biskupic is an old-fashioned reporter's reporter--hard-digging, tough-minded, but even-handed. She is also a thoughtful and shrewd judge of people. She has penetrated the Supreme Court and given us a fascinating portrait of the court's most colorful and human justice."
Evan Thomas, Newsweek

"This is the best judicial biography I've ever read. Scalia, the lodestone of the modern court, is complex, influential, difficult and, above all—on these pages—alive."
—Richard Ben Cramer, author of Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life

"Biskupic's book is that uncommon thing, a genuinely fair-minded study of a polarizing (and still active) public figure.  She's also a biographer shrewd enough to recognize sideshows when she sees them.  … Naturally, the meat of American Original is Scalia's 23 years (and counting) on the high court.  Readers allergic to legalese have reason to be grateful for Biskupic's lucidity as she guides us through dozens of cases. Always alert to incidentals that humanize them, she never loses track of the larger issues they dramatize or the insights they provide into Scalia's temperament."
Magazine writer Tom Carson (Read the full review)

“Biskupic is tough but fair. She does not accept Scalia's claims that he has no agenda and that his Catholicism is irrelevant to his rulings. She finds some of his opinions, including Bush v. Gore, inconsistent with his philosophy that the federal government should defer to the prerogatives of states. But she allows Scalia to explain himself in his own words. … At age 73, Scalia remains full of piss and vinegar. If you want to know where he's likely to take his colleagues — and when they'll refuse to go along with him — pick up ‘American Original.’ Don't wait for a court order."
Glenn Altschuler, Tulsa World (Read the full review)

“An impeccably researched biography … [T]he book already has garnered criticism from both sides of the political aisle, for being too soft or too hard on Scalia and his politics. To this reviewer, the book seems totally evenhanded. … Biskupic provides ammunition for both sides.”
Gene Warner, Buffalo News (Read full review)

"Antonin Scalia's influence is stronger than ever, according to Joan Biskupic in her new biography of the Supreme Court justice."
—The Washington Post

"It’s worth checking out Joan Biskupic’s new biography of Justice Antonin Scalia—American Original. . . It’s the first real deep dive into his personal background (including his religion) and how it affects his decisions. Scalia is a critical figure on the Supreme Court, given its continuing shift to the right. And Biskupic does a great job in helping the reader understand where he’s coming from."
—Thomas Goldstein, Daily Beast, "Smart People Recommend"

"Joan Biskupic’s insightful biography of Justice Antonin Scalia explores his family background, his career as a government official, law professor, and judge, his commitment to the cause of "originalism," his contributions as a justice of the Supreme Court, and his distinctive personal and intellectual style. From start to finish, this is a lively and engrossing read. Biskupic cuts through the legal jargon to make Scalia’s influence and limitations readily accessible to a general audience."
Geoffrey Stone, Chicago Tribune
 (Read the full review)

"Several years ago, Joan Biskupic, a journalist with a law degree, wrote a splendid biography of Sandra Day O'Connor that was subtitled "How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice." Now that the makeup of the court has swung to the right, Ms. Biskupic has transferred the "most influential" title to another justice, Antonin Scalia, because he has made "originalism" respectable. . Ms. Biskupic is that rare writer who can clearly and concisely explain the issues in cases considered by the court while carrying general readers along with the human narrative."
Priscilla S. Taylor, Washington Times(Read the full review)

"This comprehensive -- and fair -- analysis of Scalia's life and work does not seek to entertain us. It allows the justice to do that in his own words with his inimitable wit, intellectual energy and linguistic artistry. We are thus able to better understand why he is both revered and reviled for reasons that run the spectrum from his charisma to his controversial jurisprudence."
James J. Zazzali, The Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey)