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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is dead at 79

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the intellectual cornerstone of the court’s modern conservative wing, whose elegant and acidic opinions inspired a movement of legal thinkers and ignited liberal critics, died Feb. 13 on a ranch near San Antonio. He was 79.

The cause of death was not immediately known.

In a statement Saturday, Chief Justice John G. Roberts said: “On behalf of the Court and retired Justices, I am saddened to report that our colleague Justice Antonin Scalia has passed away. He was an extraordinary individual and jurist, admired and treasured by his colleagues. His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he so loyally served. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife Maureen and his family.”

In the first official notice of Justice Scalia’s death, Texas Gov. Greg Abbot said: “Justice Antonin Scalia was a man of God, a patriot, and an unwavering defender of the written Constitution and the Rule of Law. His fierce loyalty to the Constitution set an unmatched example, not just for judges and lawyers, but for all Americans. We mourn his passing, and we pray that his successor on the Supreme Court will take his place as a champion for the written Constitution and the Rule of Law.”

Justice Scalia, the first Italian American to serve on the court, was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and quickly became the kind of champion to the conservative legal world that his benefactor was in the political realm.

An outspoken opponent of abortion, affirmative action and what he termed the “so-called homosexual agenda,” Justice Scalia’s intellectual rigor, flamboyant style and eagerness to debate his detractors energized conservative law students, professors and intellectuals who felt outnumbered by liberals in their chosen professions.

“He has by the force and clarity of his opinions become a defining figure in American constitutional law,” Northwestern University law professor Steven Calabresi said at a Federalist Society dinner honoring Justice Scalia at the 20-year mark of his service on the Supreme Court. He took his seat Sept. 26, 1986.

Justice Scalia was the most prominent advocate of a manner of constitutional interpretation called “originalism,” the idea that judges should look to the meaning of the words of the Constitution at the time they were written.

He mocked the notion of a “living” Constitution, one that evolved with changing times, as simply an excuse for judges to impose their own ideological views.

Critics countered that the same could be said for originalism — and that the legal conclusions Justice Scalia said were dictated by that approach meshed neatly with the justice’s views on the death penalty, gay rights and abortion.

It is hard to overstate Justice Scalia’s impact on the modern court. Upon his arrival, staid oral arguments before the justices became jousting matches, with Justice Scalia aggressively questioning counsel with whom he disagreed, challenging his colleagues and often dominating the sessions.

He asked so many questions in his first sitting as a justice that Justice Lewis F. Powell whispered to Justice Thurgood Marshall: “Do you think he knows the rest of us are here?”

Justice Scalia was just as ready for combat outside the court. He relished debating his critics at law schools and in public appearances, although he sometimes displayed a thin skin.

He tired of questions about his prominent role in the court’s 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore, which halted a recount of the presidential vote in Florida and effectively decided the presidency for Republican George W. Bush. His response to those who raised questions years later: “Get over it.”

Despite his impact on the legal world, Justice Scalia’s views were too far to the right for him to play the pivotal roles on the court that his fellow Reagan nominees — Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy — eventually assumed.

Justice Scalia was far better known for fiery dissents than landmark majority opinions. One exception was the court’s groundbreaking 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller.

An avid hunter and a member of his high school rifle team, Justice Scalia wrote the court’s 5-to-4 ruling that held for the first time that the Second Amendment afforded a right to gun ownership unrelated to military service.