During U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s return visit in 2012 to the University of Chicago Law School, where he taught for five years, a law student asked him what was the most important issue that had not yet come before the court.
Scalia paused before responding, “What is the meaning of life?” It was a fittingly expansive answer from a justice known for his wit, keen intellect and the belief that many of the most important questions in life and public policy are outside the court’s authority.
Scalia, a defining figure in modern conservatism who was also known as a gracious colleague and teacher, died Feb. 13 during a hunting trip in Texas. He was 79.
“The Law School mourns the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, our former faculty member, whose theories of statutory and constitutional interpretation have been among the most influential ideas in law in the last half-century,” said Law School Dean Thomas J. Miles. “Justice Scalia’s connections to the Law School were many and deep. After he left the faculty and later was appointed to the court, Justice Scalia was a mentor to dozens of our graduates whom he hired as his law clerks. He was also the father of a distinguished graduate of the Law School, Eugene Scalia. The power and clarity of Justice Scalia’s reasoning, as well has his lively writing style, ensure that his judicial opinions will be widely read and widely debated for many years to come.”
At the University and in his 30 years of service on the Supreme Court—the longest of any current justice—Scalia was known as a standard bearer for originalism, an approach to constitutional interpretation that focuses on the text’s meaning as people at the time would have understood it. Prof. Geoffrey Stone, who was a young faculty member when Scalia arrived at UChicago in 1977, described “Nino” as “tough, brilliant and kind.” He said Scalia’s positions have often prevailed, though his originalist philosophy has not become as widespread as Scalia might have hoped.
“He was a brilliant analyst, an extraordinary writer and fervently committed to his views,” wrote Stone, the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, in The Daily Beast. “In the end, I suspect Nino’s greatest disappointment was that he could never persuade his colleagues to embrace his originalist vision of constitutional law.”
A graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Law School, Scalia taught at the University of Virginia and served in the Nixon and Ford administrations before coming to the University of Chicago. He helped organize the Law School’s first chapter of the conservative Federalist Society in 1982—one of the society’s first three chapters nationwide—and served as its first faculty advisor. The subjects that he taught included administrative law, and Stone recalled that he was an engaging and witty participant in a monthly poker game.
Scalia said in his 2012 visit that the most lasting impact of his time at the Law School came from his influence on students rather than from his legal writings.
“A whole lot of what I am intellectually is attributable to this place,” Scalia said when he delivered the 2012 Ulysses and Marguerite Schwartz Memorial Lecture before a full Law School auditorium. “The University of Chicago is one of two or three of the most formidable intellectual institutions in the world; a really impressive place. You’re lucky to be here. And I’m glad to be back.”
‘A great man, and a deeply good one’
In 1982 President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, followed in 1986 by Scalia’s nomination to the Supreme Court, which the Senate confirmed unanimously. “It’s hard to believe this,” he said in 2012. “I was confirmed by a vote of 98 to nothing. Me!” He said the contentiousness of recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings arises in part from anxiety over the court’s elevated role—in his view, “putting in new rights that didn’t exist before and taking out some rights that used to exist.”
On the court, Scalia was known as a gifted writer and a brilliant participant in oral arguments, often using historical evidence as an aid in determining the original meaning of laws and the Constitution. He cast his originalist approach as a safeguard against ideologically motivated decisions, and a limit on the temptation for unelected judges to give themselves more power at the expense of elected representatives.
“Justice Scalia’s powerful arguments for originalism and textualism changed the way all justices, liberal and conservative, approached cases,” said Aziz Huq, the Frank and Bernice J. Greenberg Professor of Law. “One of his great victories is that many tenets of his approaches to legal problems are now conventional wisdom. And for better or worse, Scalia’s pungent and forceful opinions did not merely appeal to law professors or other jurists. Rather, he spoke directly to the public, making him, in a sense, one of the democratic Justices of our age.”
“Justice Scalia had a gigantic influence, and he inspired a generation of law students to see the importance of legal craft,” said William Baude, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Law. “He was brilliant and witty, but even more important, he had integrity. Some of his most important opinions—in sentencing, trial rights and government searches, for example—upheld the rights of criminal defendants toward whom Scalia was not particularly sympathetic. But he took pride in trying to follow legal principle, regardless of whether he liked the results.”
Scalia’s positions sometimes surprised liberals, such as his support for the “rule of lenity,” giving defendants the benefit of the doubt in instances where the will of Congress is unclear. He befriended people across the ideological spectrum, including close friend Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with whom he went parasailing in France and rode an elephant in India.
Cass Sunstein, who served with Scalia on the Law School faculty, said even those who disagreed with Scalia “owe him an immense debt, because the clarity and power of his arguments forced us to do better.” Sunstein said Scalia treated him with “immense kindness” and generosity when Sunstein was a young professor at UChicago.
“He was a great man, and a deeply good one,” Sunstein wrote in Bloomberg.
Scalia discussed many current legal issues with UChicago students and faculty members during his two-day visit in 2012, but his most widely cited quote came in response to a student who asked what advice he would give to a young law student today.
“Try to find a practice that enables you to have a human existence,” said Scalia, who began his law career at a firm in Cleveland, in part to allow more time for his family. “I’m not talking about time for goofing off; I’m talking about time to attend to your other responsibilities—to your family, to your church or synagogue, to your community. All of those are real responsibilities.”
Looking back at his first law job, Scalia said, “You should look for a place like that. I’m sure they’re still out there. Maybe you have to go to Cleveland.”
Scalia’s legacy at the Law School includes strong family connections. His son Eugene Scalia, JD’90, served as editor-in-chief of the University of Chicago Law Review and has sometimes taught courses at the Law School since graduating.
In addition to his son Eugene, Scalia is survived by his wife of 56 years, Maureen McCarthy Scalia, their eight other children and numerous grandchildren.