Harvard Law School Reacts to the Passing of Justice Scalia

On Wednesday, February 24, Harvard Law School hosted a panel featuring Dean Martha Minow and Professors Frank Michelman, Larry Lessig, Richard Lazarus, Adrian Vermuele, John Manning, Cass Sunstein, and Charles Fried. They represent a wide range of political ideologies and legal interests. But there is one thing they all share: a deep respect for Justice Scalia’s contributions to the legal community.

Each of the panelists had a connection to the Justice—some worked for him, others argued before him, and the moderator, Professor Michelman, shared an office at the Harvard Law Review’s Gannett House during their law school careers.

Justice Scalia will perhaps be most remembered for his influential approach to interpreting the law, popularizing originalism and textualism. Professor Sunstein called him the most brilliant administrative lawyer to ever serve on the Court, and alongside Justices Holmes and Jackson, one of the greatest writers, too. Professor Fried remarked that generations to come will encounter his legacy through his memorable and thoughtful opinions.

Professor Vermuele commented that the late Justice’s ruling virtue was courage. “His brilliance is not just a function of IQ, but stemmed from a courage to follow a line of reasoning wherever it led,” he said. As a clerk for Justice Scalia, Professor Lessig recalled watching his boss struggle in his chambers between what he knew he should do based on his principles and what he wanted to do as a conservative jurist. Professor Manning, who also clerked for the Justice, discussed how each clerk would meet individually in Justice Scalia’s chambers to talk about the cases assigned to them. Despite Justice Scalia’s notoriously conservative positioning, his clerks always felt free to challenge him. Clerks debated issues thoroughly and fiercely, rarely breaking down on political lines.

Even those panelists who disagreed with Justice Scalia’s judicial philosophy recognized his impact on the Court. Professor Lessig noted that despite the differences in politics, he could not escape the fact that Justice Scalia affected how he thinks about law. And Dean Minow, in recalling the Justice’s “genuine interest in connecting over…ideas,” stated that their divergent ideologies did not matter to him—in fact, it made it a plus because he enjoyed the discussions. His commitment to engaging with his liberal colleagues was no more apparent than in his friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But the professors were not only struck by the Justice’s brilliance; he also had great warmth as a person and genuine friendships with his colleagues. Professor Sunstein respected Justice Scalia for being an extraordinarily generous and good person. Students at HLS shared this admiration.

“I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn of Justice Scalia’s passing,” third-year law student James Nelson said. “He was an amazing man, jurist, and constitutionalist. He will be known as a giant on the Court who championed textualism and stood courageously for conservative values.  He was a model to me and many other young conservatives of rich intellectual thinking, rigorous application of a well-developed judicial philosophy, and joy in the face of great opposition. He transformed the Court for the better, and I hope his legacy will live on for many years.”

Not all are mourning Justice Scalia’s death. Georgetown University Law Center Professor Gary Peller, who graduated from Harvard Law School, stirred debate with his opposition to the Law Center’s press release. Professor Bruce Hay also criticized the Justice in a recent article published in Salon. Although he clerked for Justice, Professor Hay characterized Mr. Scalia’s “true legacy” as “inhumanity.” He added, “He died as he lived, gun at hand, dreaming of killing helpless prey from a position of safety and comfort.”

The discussion last Wednesday followed a different path, however. The panelists agreed that Justice Scalia will be remembered for his contributions to intellectual diversity and his gracious friendship.

“We will not forget him,” Professor Fried said. “He is with us.”

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