What It Was Like Having Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for a Father
"There were definitely some unpleasant episodes where people would tell me how little they liked him. But I was always proud of him."
Antonin Scalia served as an Associate Supreme Court Justice for 30 years, from the mid-1980s until his death in 2016. He is arguably the most revered — and feared — conservative intellectual in political history, one known for his wit, well-written opinions, and ‘originalist’ approach to law. While greatly respected, he was also known for having some controversial views on everything from capital punishment to LGBTQ and abortion rights, which earned him many, many critics. He was also remembered as, well, a pretty fun guy out of court who had many friends and earned a reputation as a 5-star grillmaster.
Above all else, Scalia was a family man. A father to nine children, he raised them in Virginia alongside his wife Maureen. The eighth of nine of those children, Christopher, refers to his role as a father as “The Supreme Court of Parenting.” Christopher was 10 when his father was appointed as a Justice. It took him a while to understand what the role really meant. But what he always knew was that his dad was home for dinner and home for breakfast, valued hard work, loved baseball, and most of all, loved his family. Christopher is a writer, conservative commentator, and former professor. Following his father’s passing, he edited together a collection of his father’s speeches called Scalia Speaks, a process that he referred to as cathartic.
Here, Christopher talks about what it was like to live under his father’s rules, his childhood memories, and what his dad’s controversial legacy holds for him.
Sometimes people assume that because of my dad’s job, we had a very serious house, where we did nothing but talk about the law. It wasn’t like that. There were certainly a lot of intellectual conversations. But that’s not all we did. We had a lot of fun in the house. We shared a lot of jokes, and talked a lot about sports and music, even if we didn’t agree on those things. Like any family, we would find lots of things to argue about. But it was a fun place to grow up in part because it wasn’t just about my dad’s job. How big of a family we were was always the most remarkable thing about our house. It wasn’t that my dad was a Justice. It was that it was a big family of nine kids.
I was 10 years old when my father was confirmed to the Supreme Court. I had a sense that something important was going on, but I didn’t really know what the job was until high school. It was just kind of fun for me too, that summer of ‘86, all of the hullabaloo over the nomination, confirmation, and swearing-in.
Dad wouldn’t bring up work. It’s not like he came home and said, “Oh kids, you’ll never believe what I had to deal with.” He would talk about it if we asked, but when we were home, he would talk to us about what we were up to. One of the things he liked to do to relax was read the comics. He read the newspaper in the morning and he read the comics at night. And he enjoyed watching old movies.
My dad often said that my mom managed the home. They were in it together, though. It was always clear that even though my mom was at home and my dad was at the office, they were still a team. They had the same vision and goals for the family. My father was really good about, as demanding as his job was, being home every night, in time for dinner, leading us in grace before meals, and then being around on weekends, getting us to church, things like that. It was always clear to us that as hard as he worked, family was still central to him. It would have been easy for him to stay late nights at the office, but he didn’t do that. We saw him every morning and every night.
Sometimes people assume that because of my dad’s job, we had a very serious house, where we did nothing but talk about the law. It wasn’t like that.
The things I think about often are small traditions we had as a family, like Saturday grill nights during the summer. He was good on the grill. My mom is an incredible cook and she did most of the cooking, but he did some things like that: when he had to step up, he was pretty good. And going to baseball games with him, usually when the Orioles played the Yankees. He was a Yankees fan. My mom was a Red Sox fan. So it was a mixed marriage.
Every summer, we’d go to the beach for a couple of weeks. There was a lot I loved about it, including my dad’s routine. Sometimes he got up early, biked to the market and came back with donuts and the paper. He’d still work a little, but he’d also go fishing and to the beach. He’d grill burgers. And once every trip, we’d have a big crab dinner. I loved just spending a long evening on the porch, cracking into those crabs with my parents and watching the sunset.
Being his son was the trickiest when I was a graduate student. I was in the English program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I don’t think any English department is conservative, and the University of Wisconsin, in particular, is not a conservative school. I always felt a little bit out of place there and a little bit aware of what a lot of people there thought about my father.
There were definitely some unpleasant episodes where people would tell me how little they liked him. But I was always proud of him. At first I felt like I had to stick up for him, but eventually I realized that he did that well enough himself with his opinions.
I went to a couple of academic conferences where people saw my last name and they assumed I wasn’t related, or if I was, that it was a distant relation. So they would complain to me about my father and say things like, “Oh, man, family reunions must be really awkward,” and stuff like that. I never knew how to answer. Do I tell them right now that he’s my father, to make sure they don’t insult him? Do I let them go on a minute and let it pass so as not to embarrass them? I still haven’t figured out the best approach to that.
There were definitely some unpleasant episodes where people would tell me how little they liked him. But I was always proud of him.
But most people were not like that. Most people, even if they disagreed with my father, were perfectly nice to me.
I admire him and I miss him every day. I’ve given what my father has passed down to me a lot of thought now that I’m raising my own kids. My parents were just excellent models. It was clear to us how hard he worked, how much effort he put into the things that looked effortless from the outside. The role that he played was very clear to us: it was not something he had to sit us down and lecture us about. I wanted to be a parent like him and to give my children the stability, support, and love he and my mom gave us.
As I got older, and I’m going to sound so cheesy, but he became more and more of a friend to me. I always loved him and I always respected him, and I think it’s probably true of a lot of parent-child relationships, but I didn’t appreciate him as much when I was living with him. Only as I started a career and family of my own did I realize just how much he and my mom accomplished together. Not only was he on the Supreme Court, but together they raised nine fairly well-adjusted kids, which I consider kind of the Supreme Court of parenting. What they did was amazing. And I’m in awe of both of them. And grateful that they were my parents.
— As Told To Lizzy Francis