Late US Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Picture: AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN
Late US Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Picture: AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN

IN ALMOST 30 years on the bench of the US Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia was strident, colourful, and conservative. That made him an unlikely buddy for fellow justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

"I love him but sometimes I’d like to strangle him," Ms Ginsburg, a liberal who bonded with Justice Scalia over a love of opera, once said.

Justice Scalia, who has died at 79, was appointed by president Ronald Reagan in 1986 and built a reputation as one of the nation’s most brilliant, conservative jurists. He was passionately opposed to abortion and supported the death penalty.

Although he prevailed in many areas, thanks in part to the court’s conservative majority during his tenure, he was known for his colourful and angry dissents, often read with theatrical flair.

The court term that ended in June brought him a series of defeats, most notably on gay marriage and President Barack Obama’s healthcare law, which left Justice Scalia outraged and seeing it as his worst term ever. When the court legalised same-sex marriage in June on a 5-4 vote, Justice Scalia, in the minority, took aim at Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion and the liberals who joined him, saying he would "hide my head in a bag" if his own name were associated with that decision. He said the opinion was "couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic".

During oral arguments, Justice Scalia often aimed sarcastic verbal barbs at lawyers. He was equally combative off the bench. His stock response about the controversial Bush vs Gore ruling in 2000 which handed the presidency to George W Bush was: "Get over it."

But perhaps his greatest achievement came in a 2008 case in which he authored the majority opinion when the court ruled 5-4 that the Second Amendment right to bear arms extended to an individual’s right to keep guns in the home. It was a key victory for the gun rights movement.

Nicknamed "Nino", the former federal appeals court judge and law professor was proud to be the first Italian-American on the court. He brought to the court a concept of jurisprudence based on the belief that judges should keep out of issues better handled by democratically accountable institutions such as Congress and state legislatures.

His doctrine of "originalism" centred on the belief that the US constitution should be understood in the context of the 18th century era when it was written. He argued that the right to an abortion never appears in the constitution and the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs Wade decision that created a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion was wrongly decided.

A Catholic with a son who became a priest, he used a 1996 speech in Mississippi to urge Christians to stand up for their religious beliefs.

He was a law professor at the University of Chicago before Reagan named him to the US Court of Appeals in 1982 and four years later appointed him to the highest court.

Off the bench, he played the piano, sang at parties and enjoyed poker. He once told reporters that he was an "esteemed jurist by day, man-about-town by night".