Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, 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 Saturday on a ranch near San Antonio. The cause of death was not immediately known.

"Justice Antonin Scalia was a man of God, a patriot, and an unwavering defender of the written Constitution and the Rule of Law," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement, the first official notice of Justice Scalia's death. "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 his views on the death penalty, gay rights, and abortion.

It is hard to overstate his 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 on the court that Justice Lewis 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 role in the court's 2000 decision in Bush v. Gore, which 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, his 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 - 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, he wrote the 5-4 ruling that held for the first time that the Second Amendment afforded a right to gun ownership unrelated to military service.

"His views on textualism and originalism, his views on the role of judges in our society, on the practice of judging, have really transformed the terms of legal debate in this country," Justice Elena Kagan said when she was dean of Harvard Law School, alma mater to both. "He is the justice who has had the most important impact over the years on how we think and talk about law."

Antonin Gregory Scalia - "Nino" to many - was born in Trenton on March 11, 1936, and grew up in the Queens borough of New York City. His father, Salvatore, came through Ellis Island at 17; he learned English and became a professor of Romance languages at Brooklyn College.

His mother, the former Catherine Panaro, was a second-generation Italian American and an elementary school teacher. Not only was Nino their only child, he was the only child of his generation on either side of the family.

The whole extended clan doted on him, Joan Biskupic reported in her biography American Original, and expected achievement.

In 1953, he graduated first in his class at St. Francis Xavier, a military prep school in Manhattan, and won a naval ROTC scholarship but was turned down by his first choice of college, Princeton.

A devout Catholic, he attended his second choice, Georgetown University, where he was valedictorian of the Class of 1957. In his graduation speech, he exhorted his fellow students: "If we will not be leaders of a real, a true, a Catholic intellectual life, no one will!"

He then entered Harvard Law School, where he was editor of the law review and graduated magna cum laude in 1960. That same year, he married Maureen McCarthy, a Radcliffe student he had met on a blind date.

She, too, came from a small family, but they made up for it, with five sons and four daughters.

"We didn't set out to have nine children," he told Lesley Stahl on the CBS show 60 Minutes. "We're just old-fashioned Catholics, playing what used to be known as 'Vatican Roulette.' "

He added that his four other sons were relieved when their brother Paul decided to "take one for the team" and become a priest.

The Scalias moved around. After traveling across Europe for a year while he was a Harvard Sheldon Fellow, the newlyweds moved to Cleveland, where he joined the Jones Day firm in 1961.

On the cusp of becoming partner, he left private practice in 1967 to become a law professor at the University of Virginia.

In 1971, he became general counsel to the new Office of Telecommunications Policy in the Nixon administration; the agency spurred development of the nascent cable industry. From 1972 to 1974, he was chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States, followed by three years as assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel.

After Jimmy Carter won election to the White House, the future justice returned to academia as a professor at the University of Chicago law school.

Then Reagan came into office in 1981 and the next year nominated him to the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. His name quickly appeared on short lists of potential Supreme Court nominees.

Reagan in 1981 made good on a promise to appoint the court's first woman with his choice of O'Connor. His next chance to leave an imprint came five years later, when Chief Justice Warren Burger announced he was stepping down.

The president decided to elevate Justice William Rehnquist to the chief's job, and Judge Scalia and fellow D.C. Circuit Judge Robert Bork became the finalists for the opening.

Judge Scalia got the nod. He sailed through confirmation hearings and was approved, 98-0.

Future Vice President Joseph Biden, then a Democratic senator from Delaware, later said that his vote for Justice Scalia was the one he most regretted - "because he was so effective."

Justice Scalia set out immediately to make his views known - and became exactly what the conservatives had hoped for.

He was the court's most outspoken member on the subject of religion. He urged fellow intellectuals to proudly be "fools for Christ."

He wanted to lower the wall between church and state, endorsing school prayer, nativity displays on public property, and public funds for religious schools.

But he insisted his views were shaped by an understanding of the Constitution.

"Don't paint me as antigay or antiabortion or anything else," he said at an appearance in 2015. "All I'm doing on the Supreme Court is opining about who should decide: Is it a matter left to the people, or is it a matter of my responsibility as a justice of the Supreme Court?"