Law School Affiliates Remember Alum Scalia for Fiery Personality, Contributions to Law

Harvard Law School affiliates remembered alumnus and Supreme Court Justice Antonin G. Scalia, who died Saturday at age 79, for his vibrant, fiery personality and his substantial contributions to United States law.

Scalia in 1992
Antonin G. Scalia speaks on November 18, 1992 in this Crimson file photo. Scalia, who passed away over the weekend, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1960.

Scalia, an alumnus from the Law School’s class of 1960, was renowned as a leading conservative legal theorist, staunch constitutional originalist, and sharp debater who maintained close connections to the school throughout his life.

“Justice Scalia will be remembered as one of the most influential jurists in American history,” Law School Dean Martha L. Minow wrote in a statement. “He changed how the Court approaches statutory interpretation, and in countless areas introduced new ways of thinking about the Constitution and the role of the Court that will remain important for years to come.”

Then-United States President Ronald Reagan appointed Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986 after former Chief Justice Warren Burger retired. At the time of his death, Scalia was the longest-serving member of the current court, where he presided for 29 years.

His judicial career was characterized by his strict adherence to originalism, a doctrine of constitutional interpretation based on rigid compliance with the framers’ historical intent. Scalia’s originalist opinions often aligned with conservative policies and principles, leading many to view him as a conservative icon, and he was famous for his acerbic dissents and sometimes playful, sometimes biting cross-examinations in the courtroom.


Scalia displayed his enthusiasm for intellectual sparring as a student at Harvard Law School in the late 1950s. In a Crimson article from 1986, the year he was appointed to the court, Law School classmates recounted Scalia’s work ethic, humor, and sharp intellect. Classmates said that as a student, Scalia displayed the aptitude for oral argument that would define his judicial career, as he challenged his peers to lively debates.

In recent decades, Harvard Law professors have often engaged with Scalia and his theories, publicly weighing in on his legal opinions and sometimes debating him face-to-face. Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who knew Scalia personally, often found himself squaring off against the justice.

“He was a very innovative, creative person. We had debates about everything,” Dershowitz said. “I disagree with almost all of his opinions, but I found him to be a formidable intellectual adversary.”

Their debates—which took place in Dershowitz’s classroom, in private letters, and in the rooms of the Supreme Court—confronted issues ranging from capital punishment to the contentious 2000 presidential election. Dershowitz said that while the two always argued, afterwards they “always talked fondly.”

“I’ll miss him personally, and I think the country will miss his intellectual contributions to the law,” Dershowitz said.

Law professor Charles Fried, who has written extensively on Scalia’s judicial stances, wrote in an email, “I knew him in so many ways over so many years. I am very sad about this great man's death.”

In the days immediately following his death at a west Texas ranch, Law School faculty have publicly paid tribute to Scalia and analyzed his legacy. Law professor Richard Lazarus penned an op-ed in the Harvard Law Record extolling Scalia’s contributions to the art of oral argument. In a Bloomberg View piece, columnist and Law professor Noah R. Feldman wrote, “Antonin Scalia will go down as one of the greatest justices in U.S. Supreme Court history -- and one of the worst.” Law Professor Laurence H. Tribe commented in Politico Magazine, “To say that Scalia will be missed is an understatement.”

Scalia remained a faithful Law School alumnus throughout his life; Dershowitz said Scalia “felt a very deep connection to Harvard.”

The justice returned to the school several times to deliver speeches and attend events. In November 2014, he judged the school’s annual Ames Moot Court Competition and attended the inaugural address of the Scalia lecture series. The series, funded by an anonymous donor, invites legal experts each year to discuss the Constitution’s founding principles. Current Supreme Court Justice and former Law School dean Elena Kagan delivered the 2015 Scalia lecture.

In her speech several months before his death, Kagan predicted Scalia’s legacy as a justice.

“The fact of the matter is, you wake up in 100 years and most people are not going to know most of our names” Kagan said. “I think that is really not the case with Justice Scalia, whom I think is going to go down as one of the most important, most historic figures on the Court.”

In her statement following Scalia’s death, Minow emphasized her appreciation for Scalia’s contributions to the Law School.

“At Harvard Law School we are deeply grateful that he returned so often to meet with our students, to judge our moot court competitions, and — as he so loved to do — joust with law professors and students alike,” she said. “He will be greatly missed. We are so proud to host the annual Scalia lecture series, and we will honor his legacy in that way and others in the future.”

—Staff writer Claire E. Parker can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ClaireParkerDC.


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