Saying Goodbye to ‘Nino’
ome knew him as ‘Nino.’ Others, ‘The Boss.’ In the wake of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death on Feb. 13, members of the Law School community remembered and celebrated the life of their colleague, mentor and friend. Scalia served as a faculty member at the school from 1967 to 1974.
Scalia, a leader of the conservative originalist movement, kept strong ties to the school. He had been scheduled to speak in Charlottesville in February as part of the Federalist Society’s national student symposium, which was being hosted by UVA Law’s student chapter. (Former U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement spoke in tribute to the justice instead.) Scalia spoke at the Virginia Law Review’s centennial celebration in 2014 and at many occasions hosted by the Law School over the years.
In 2008, Scalia received the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law, the highest external honor bestowed by the University of Virginia. During that visit to the school, Scalia lectured to the entire first-year class on constitutional law, at an event hosted by Professor Micah Schwartzman. Six UVA Law graduates have clerked for Scalia in the past 10 years alone.
Few UVA Law alumni can claim to have had as close a relationship with the late justice as Brian Donato ’70. They were friends for 48 years, dating to the summer before Scalia began teaching at the Law School. Donato is godfather to Scalia’s son Paul.
“He was a wonderful person and a great friend,” Donato recalled. “He was extremely warm-hearted and generous. I saw him several times a year — hunting, fishing and sharing meals with him and his wonderful wife, Maureen.”
Donato likes to tell the unlikely story of how he met the future Supreme Court justice. Three weeks before classes started, Donato and his wife had much of their furniture damaged by a moving company. Not knowing any lawyers in town, he called up Scalia, his soon-to-be Contracts professor, and asked if he would help deal with the recalcitrant moving company. Upon securing full reimbursement for the items that had been broken, Scalia presented him with the bill: dinner with their wives at Donato’s place.
“So they came out to eat at our folding card table, and brought a bottle of Sicilian brandy,” Donato said with a laugh. “We enjoyed ourselves until four in the morning.”
“He had a wonderful laugh,” Donato added. “He was every bit as humane as anybody you could imagine. He never put on airs whatsoever.”
While Scalia was teaching at UVA Law, Donato said, he made it a priority to have a good relationship with the students. He remembers Scalia fielding queries and discussing issues with students while flipping burgers on the grill at backyard parties, never shying away from a good debate.
During alumnus Todd Sloan’s first year at UVA Law, Scalia taught Sloan’s small-section Contracts class. Scalia “was respected by all,” said Sloan, who graduated in 1972 and has also taught at the Law School.
“There was a bit of a raconteur about him. We spoke tenderly about Rose of Aberlone and discussed char-a-bancs,” Sloan said, referring to cases often taught in contracts courses. “So the class had a bit of a trivia game about it. He was an amazing instructor; I learned much about contracts and life from this good man.”
Katherine Mims Crocker ’12 clerked for Justice Scalia, and recalled, in an article for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, that, though he may have seemed “larger than life” from afar, “to his law clerks, ‘the Boss’ (as we called him) was a real person, a mentor, and — in many ways — a friend.”
“It might sound trite to say that Justice Scalia lived the fullest life imaginable,” she continued, “but, again, he did. Equally comfortable in the opera house and the duck blind, he pursued a remarkable range of avocational interests. And with nine children and dozens of grandchildren, family was never far from his mind.”
UVA Law professor John F. Duffy, writing in the National Review, remembered his own initial disappointment, while he clerked for Scalia, at his boss being assigned a relatively low-profile, technical case about Social Security benefits.
“But I soon realized that my boss was not unhappy in the least,” he wrote. “The case was a chance to do some good — to give the statutory text a straightforward and sensible reading; to clean up an area of law that had caused confusion and circuit splits for years; to make a tiny advance for the rule of law. This is what lawyers and judges are trained to do, and Justice Scalia was masterly, and very happy, doing it.”
Professor Richard Bonnie ’69 served on the faculty alongside Scalia and also worked in Washington, D.C., at the same time as Scalia did in the early 1970s.
“Every interaction was at once serious and fun — I was ever on guard for the unexpected insight and the acerbic aside,” Bonnie said. “Nino was larger than life even then.”
At a Feb. 25 event at the Law School discussing Scalia’s legacy and the future of the court, Slate legal correspondent and senior editor Dahlia Lithwick said Scalia helped educate and influence a generation of lawyers.
“None of us — none of us — who’ve gone to law school when Scalia [was] on the bench can say that we’re not completely shaped by his interpretive approach and his style,” she said.
At the same event, UVA Law professor Frederick Schauer said Scalia’s influence was greatest in formulating a theory of how to interpret the Constitution that conservatives could rally behind. Scalia looked to the meaning of the Framers’ and lawmakers’ language rather than their intent.
“The entire nature of the position against so-called living constitutionalism has been shifted from original intent to original public meaning,” Schauer said. “That’s almost entirely Justice Scalia’s doing.”
Scalia’s legacy, for those who knew him, is also one of friendship. “I think the country misses him, and will continue to miss him,” Donato concluded. “Whether you agreed with him or not, the justices loved him. He had some really biting dissents, and didn’t suffer fools, but he was never mean-spirited. He loved the joy of being in there, wrestling with these issues. He would be so excited after coming out of a conference, and we’d sit and have a beautiful lunch. He loved the law.”
Dan Bress '05
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 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.
Clerking for the justice was exhilarating. When he wanted all four law clerks to come into his office to discuss a matter, he would ask his secretary to “summon the clerkerati!” He preferred to argue about cases and encouraged (and expected) us to push back against him. These conversations, which could go on for some time and with increasing animation, took place under the watchful gaze of an enormous mounted elk, nicknamed “Leroy,” that hung on his office wall. When the justice was preparing to issue an opinion, he would “book” the opinion with the law clerk assigned to the case. This meant sitting with the justice for hours with every source cited in the opinion, which he personally reviewed. The justice would read the entire opinion aloud as he went through it, frequently consulting the dictionary (only the “Webster’s Second Edition” and not the “Webster’s Third Edition,” which the justice, a stickler for language, disdained as wretched and unacceptable). Scalia opinions are instantly recognizable in substance and tone, but what I will recall most was not any particular turn of phrase or opinion, but the careful process that led to them and how much the justice truly enjoyed working on them.
It may be of note to many UVA Law alumni and students to know how much Justice Scalia 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 Scalia 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 Supreme 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 also emblematic of his 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 recent months, 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. I will remember him by the joy he found in law and life.
Dan Bress, a former editor-in-chief of the Virginia Law Review, clerked for Justice Scalia during the 2006 term. He is currently a litigation partner at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C.
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