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Remembering Justice Antonin Scalia

Last Saturday, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. Scalia was known for his incisive legal opinions, penetrating questions during hearings, and his embrace of originalism in interpreting the law. Originalism is a legal philosophy that holds judges should interpret the Constitution and Bill of Rights by determining what its language meant to the people who originally ratified it.

This eLesson provides students an overview of Scalia’s professional career and judicial philosophy, and provides an opportunity to explore some of the landmark Supreme Court cases to which Justice Scalia contributed.



  1. As homework the night before, have students read the New York Times profile of Justice Scalia, “Antonin Scalia, Justice on the Supreme Court, Dies at 79.”
  2. In class, using printed copies or by using your classroom’s computer resources, have students read the opinion piece “What Made Antonin Scalia Great.” Ask students to respond to the following questions.
    1. Based upon their reading of the article, what does originalism mean and how did Scalia apply it in his judicial opinions?
    2. What is a “constitutional methodology” or “constitutional philosophy”? What are some examples other than originalism?
      1. Other examples include, but are not limited to the following:
        1. “Living Constitution” or “Living Tree” approach holds that the Constitution should be interpreted in light of the changes in society, and that its meaning changes over time.
        2. Strict constructionism holds that the law must be understood only as it is written, with no additional contextual, historical, or contemporary consideration.
        3. Original intent approach attempts to establish what the creators of a law were attempting to accomplish at the time, and to interpret the law consistent with the creators’ original intent.
      2. How did Scalia approach his own political viewpoints as they related to cases that came before the Supreme Court? Did he model his judicial opinions after his personal politics, or did he believe they should be separated? What evidence does the article provide?
    3. After completing the article discussion, show the CBS interview “Justice Scalia on Life.” For this lesson, you may end the clip at the 7:25 mark or continue on and show the remainder of the interview. Now that students have heard Justice Scalia describe his philosophy in his own words, ask the following questions:
      1. How did Scalia describe originalism?
      2. According to Scalia, how does a society change-through new laws or through reinterpretations of the Constitution?
      3. How did Scalia describe the process by which new rights are created?
      4. What is an example shown in the interview in which Scalia divorced his personal viewpoint from his originalist judicial philosophy while deciding a court case?
    4. Using your classroom’s computer resources, have students access the Landmark Supreme Court Cases section of the Bill of Rights Institute website.
      1. By hovering their cursor over the “More” button near the center of the screen, students should explore at least two past Supreme Court cases since 1986 in each category.
      2. Major cases that students should consider include:
        1. Texas v. Johnson (1989) – Free speech
        2. United States v. Lopez (1995) – Second Amendment
        3. New London v. Kelo (2005) – Property rights
        4. Raich v. Gonzales (2005) – Individual liberty
        5. Gonzales v. Carhart (2007) – Abortion
        6. Morse v. Frederick (2007) – Free Speech
        7. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) – Free speech and political finance
        8. National Federation of Independent Businesses v. Sebelius (2012) – Healthcare and taxation
  1. Now that they understand Scalia’s judicial philosophy, students should read the description for cases which interest them, and then follow the accompanying links to the Oyez portal.
  2. After reading a case’s description, students should pause to consider how they think Scalia sided. After consideration, students should read on to see whether their prediction was correct, and read the reasoning behind the court’s decision.