My Summer with Scalia

Steven T. Boell      Feb. 17, 2016

Seventeen years ago, in the summer after my first year at the Pennsylvania State University – Dickinson School of Law, the school offered students a “Capitals of Europe Tour.” This was a program that toured various centers of power in the European Union, sprinkled with classes on comparative law. The highlight of the trip’s itinerary (in my mind) was the multiple-week stop in Vienna where the group was joined by Justice Antonin Scalia who taught “Comparative Constitution Law.” Many of my classmates crossed the Atlantic Ocean to go to Vienna. I ventured to Vienna to meet Justice Antonin Scalia.

From the first time I read about him, I was fascinated with Justice Scalia because our backgrounds were so similar. He jokingly referred to himself (at the time) as the highest ranking Italian-Catholic in the federal government. Beyond that, as a self-professed “geek-for-the-law,” Scalia was a giant. It was not because I agreed with everything he wrote (which I did not); it was how he wrote it and the genius of the mind behind it.

That class in Vienna never disappointed. The man was urbane, witty, self-deprecating and brilliant. Our textbooks were the Federalist Papers and the US Constitution, and he immersed us in it. In his class, discussions did not follow the “Socratic Method;” they were bare-knuckled oral arguments. But the gift of that class was that the questions could go both ways; and as a result, we were provided a glimpse into the daily life and thoughts of one of the top people in our profession.

I remember vividly how he talked about how people perceive his position (abstractly pondering controversial questions of public policy, such as abortion) compared with what he actually did (write 9-0 opinions on obscure federal statutes). The genius of the man was that he approached each of those things the exact same way. His philosophy was simple: a judge’s job is to have absolute fidelity to the word of the law as written by our elected legislature, which is the “voice of the people.” All things start there and if anyone wants to argue it, he would pull out the Constitution or the Federalist Papers and ask how any of us have the hubris to second guess the genius of our Founding Fathers who clearly wanted the people to control the laws of the land through their elected representatives (as opposed to nine unelected judges).

At the end of the trip, we had dinner with Justice Scalia, who generously signed autographs and engaged in small talk. He signed my pocket copy of the United States Constitution that I carried across Europe (and still have to this day). He also signed an opinion he authored in a case called RAV v. City of Saint Paul in which the Supreme Court ruled that the conviction of a group of teenagers that burned a cross in the yard of an African-American family violated the First Amendment. In today’s world of 140 character legal analyses, the headline would be that “Justice Scalia finds in favor of racists.” His conclusion (which was joined by nearly the full court) was much more nuanced and eloquent in its protection of all of our rights: “Let there be no mistake about our belief that burning a cross in someone’s front yard is reprehensible. But St. Paul has sufficient means at its disposal to prevent such behavior without adding the First Amendment to the fire.”

To me, Justice Scalia was not an amorphous public figure that I admired or idolized; he was the man who taught me everything worth knowing about the United States Constitution and made me love my profession. As ugly as the confirmation of his replacement will be, we should take a moment to mourn the loss of a dedicated pubic official who inspired a generation of young lawyers to devote themselves to the law.

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