A Former Clerk Pays Tribute to Justice Scalia

Justice Scalia and students

Justice Antonin Scalia socializes with students after his talk in honor of receiving the 2008 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law.

February 16, 2016

Dan Bress is a 2005 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, where he served as editor-in-chief of the Virginia Law Review. He was a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for the 2006-07 Term. Bress is currently a litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C.

I remember the first time I met Justice Scalia. I was working on a paper over the winter break my 2L year and sitting in the UVA Law Library with my now-wife Lisa. The library was empty but then a man entered and started walking around. Lisa whispered to me, “I think that’s Justice Scalia.” It appeared to be him, but I could not tell for certain. Realizing this was very likely my only opportunity to ever speak with the Justice, I went up to him and all I could think to say was: “Are you Justice Scalia?” To which he responded with a dry smile: “Someone has to be.”

Little did I know that I would be privileged to clerk for him several years later and then to know him for many more years after that. I wish everyone had the opportunity to know him as I and the other law clerks did. He was a thoughtful and caring man; a devoted husband and father; a person of exceptional integrity and principle; and a patient boss (“The Boss,” as we called him). He would have been all of these things even if he were not also a Supreme Court Justice, and even if he were not possessed of one of the finest legal minds our country has ever known. His contributions to our shared profession are incalculable. He thought and cared so deeply about law, both in its theoretical dimensions and as a technical craft. He wanted — badly — to get it right, idea by idea, word by word. But as a person, he had a fundamental decency and a zest for living that pervaded his work and his interactions with others. This was how he led his life.

It may be of note to many UVA Law alumni and students to know how much he loved and respected the University of Virginia. He had many fond memories of teaching at the Law School. Years later, he would hire Law School graduates as clerks (pleased that the Law School continued to give out letter grades). He had many close friends on the faculty, including Lillian BeVier, John Jeffries and his former law clerk John Duffy. In 2008 he received the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law and knew the significance of the honor. As he had occasion to write in one of his opinions, "there is only one University of Virginia."

One of the last times I saw the Justice was on the occasion of the retirement of one of his long-time secretaries, Crystal Martin. The Justice hosted a lunch at the Court in her honor and invited both former law clerks and Crystal’s entire family. As after-lunch entertainment, he had arranged for an opera singer from the Washington National Opera to be present. Somewhat amazingly, for the final number the Justice joined him in a duet of "Some Enchanted Evening." Hearing the Justice belt out a serenade to his secretary and friend was not only hilarious, but was emblematic of the Justice’s charm and fearlessness. What other boss, aside from The Boss, would do such a thing?

Upon learning of the Justice’s sudden passing, I was stricken with that emotion that is not sensed until felt, and when felt is felt acutely: grief. Grief for his wife and the family who cherished him; grief for having lost a mentor; grief that the Court and our nation had lost a remarkable citizen. I wish there was one more constitutional law class he could visit or one more opinion he could write. I wish I could see him again at a law clerk’s reunion and say thank you. It was a privilege to have known him and to have learned under him. Years from now I look forward to my children telling me they learned about him in school, and being able to share with them more about my time with the Justice. As many others have already written in these recent days, Justice Scalia will be regarded as among our country’s most consequential jurists. But behind the legal theories and the writings was a man who took great pleasure in law and in people. May we remember him by the joy he brought to law and life.

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