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Bar News - March 16, 2016

President’s Perspective: In Memoriam: The Happy Warrior


On Feb. 13, 2016, our country lost a titan of the legal community with the unexpected passing of United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Gregory Scalia. Nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate, Scalia authored seminal opinions and enthralling dissents from his seat on our nation’s highest court for nearly 30 years. Scalia was roundly regarded for his intellect, his conservative jurisprudence and his delight in the law.

A man of principle, Scalia gave modern voice to the doctrine of textualism – arguing that the United States Constitution and laws were to be interpreted with restraint and adherence to the actual text.

Scalia was by all accounts an engaged justice who frequently interposed questions during oral argument, relying on his keen sense of humor to persuade his colleagues and reveal his own predilections. His scores of legal opinions leave us a body of law replete with his pointed prose and sardonic wit; and his work surely will be remembered as shaping the arc of legal history.

However, textualism alone is not his legacy. Scalia, the first Italian-American appointed to the Supreme Court, was a devout Catholic. As his son, a priest, stated in his homily at his father’s funeral Mass, Scalia was a practicing Catholic; he practiced in the hope that he eventually would get it right. He believed that faith should not be shunned from the public square. His faith, he maintained, made him a better judge and a better citizen. While steeped in the law, his Catholic faith was his compass and his courage.

Upon graduation in 1957 from Georgetown College, now Georgetown University, Scalia was chosen to give the valedictory address. Scalia described his four years of Jesuit undergraduate education as a search for the truth, and called upon his classmates to continue the search in a life of service and faith. Who is to lead that search? Scalia answered:

“Only ourselves trained in reason and in faith. If we will not be leaders of a real, a true, a Catholic intellectual life, no one will. We cannot shift responsibility to some vague ‘chosen few.’ We are the chosen few. The responsibility rests upon all of us, whatever our future professions. For the intellectual life, which is essentially the never-ending search for truth of which we spoke, does not belong to the college and the university… but it should stretch far beyond, to wherever there is a man to think. It is our task to carry and advance into all sections of our society this distinctively human life, of reason learned and faith believed. If we fail to do this, if we allow the cares of wealth or fame or specialized career, to stifle our spirit of wonder, to turn us from the hunt, to kill in us what was most human, then we shall have betrayed ourselves, our society, our race. If we really love the truth, we will believe that we have been shown a marvelous pathway, that we must brace ourselves at once to follow it, that life will not be worth living if we do otherwise. This prize is great. The risk is glorious.”

Scalia’s search for the truth engendered rigorous debate, and a cadre of both legal devotees and detractors. He did not mince his words, and his often fiery opinions enlivened the Court and the law. Despite his fervently held beliefs and evocative language, Scalia made his argument with intellectual rigor and without personal animus. His friendships with many across the ideological aisle, such as that with United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, are reflective of his famously good humor and his Catholic faith. So too, reflective of the respect he had for the noble profession of law.

In his 2014 commencement address at William & Mary Law School, Scalia shared his reflections on the future of the legal academy. Commensurate with the vision shared in his college valedictory address, Scalia rejected the idea of law schools becoming trade schools with abbreviated learning and graduating students with narrow competencies. The mastery of a three-year course of study in law broadly writ, the traditional view, he contended was essential to the profession of law. In this way, he explained, “the law becomes a more cohesive whole, instead of a series of separate fiefdoms” and offered that “it is good to be learned in the law because that is what makes you members of a profession rather than a trade.”

William Wordsworth, in his poem, “Character of the Happy Warrior,” captures the essence of the professional lawyer envisioned by Scalia and typified by his career in the law. The poet writes:

What every man in arms should wish to be?
It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought
Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought
Upon the plan that pleased his childish thought:
Whose high endeavours are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright:
Who, with a natural instinct to discern
What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn,
Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,
But makes his moral being his prime care…

This Happy Warrior, Justice Scalia, will be remember for his wisdom, his wit and his faith. Long after the political rancor that undoubtedly will attend the selection of Justice Scalia’s successor, his legal opinions and the example of this professional lawyer will endure.

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