Benchmark for Antonin Scalia: 25 years on court

ByJoan Biskupic, USA TODAY
October 03, 2011, 4:53 PM

WASHINGTON -- As the Supreme Court raised the curtain on its new term Monday, Chief Justice John Roberts heralded the 25th anniversary of the justice who has become a showman of the bench, Antonin Scalia.

Roberts noted that Scalia began hearing his first oral arguments and voting in cases in October 1986.

"The place has not been the same since," Roberts quipped.

Scalia, 75, became the first Italian-American justice when appointed by President Reagan. Scalia immediately shook up oral arguments with his rapid-fire questions and colorful hypotheticals. Early on, Justice Lewis Powell leaned over to Justice Thurgood Marshall and said, according to Powell biographer John Jeffries, "Do you think he knows that the rest of us are here?"

That was back in an era when the justices were quieter and let the lawyer arguing before them go on for minutes uninterrupted. Over the years, however, newer justices, including Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, showed a tendency to break in often and ask many questions. And the court now has what is called a "hot bench" — an active, energetic bench where most of the justices are hotly engaged in arguments.

Yet Scalia, even after a quarter century and joined by more active colleagues, remains a distinctive presence, with his emphatic voice, vigorous gestures and barbed questions. More than any other justice, he can draw laughs from spectators, typically with derisive comments about a lawyer's case or a colleague's point.

He can be overbearing, calling someone's case "idiotic," yet also resort to silly colloquialisms like "golly-woggle."

On Monday, when one of the lawyers in a California Medicaid dispute was making his case, Scalia blurted out, "You've lost me here." Some spectators chuckled. It was vintage Scalia.

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