Rare Supreme Court Bar meeting honors the late Justice Antonin Scalia
on Nov 4, 2016 at 5:30 pm
Membership in the Supreme Court Bar, although it sounds impressive and comes with an embossed certificate, confers no obligations and only a few privileges. These include access to a reserved section of the courtroom on argument days and invitations to meetings of the bar, rare events held solely to commemorate deceased justices. Today members of the Supreme Court Bar assembled for one such event honoring the late Justice Antonin Scalia. The gathering evoked past tradition – it is only the second such meeting in this century – and, possibly, heralded future practices – it is the first time a bar meeting has been live-streamed from the court.
Convening in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court building, bar members gathered with Scalia’s family, friends, and colleagues to hear a variety of tributes to the late justice from former clerks who have gone on to work in private practice, teaching, service in the solicitor general’s office, and positions on the bench. Common themes dominated the remarks, notably the influence of Scalia’s jurisprudence on clerks, law students, private practitioners, and courts; the brilliance and originality of his writing; his enthusiasm for the clash of ideas; his deep Catholic faith; and his commitment to his family. Paul Clement, a former solicitor general now in private practice, called the effect of Scalia’s originalist approach to constitutional law and textualist approach to statutory interpretation “Copernican,” for the revolutionary way in which Scalia reoriented the “center of focus” to the text rather than to policy considerations or legislative history. And Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, though speculating that Scalia would be dubious of the day’s proceedings, suspecting them to be the kind of “after-the-fact legislative history” he abhorred, reassured the assembled speakers that they were on safe ground in sharing their thoughts about Scalia, because the justice led an “unambiguous life.”
At the end of the presentations, the bar members passed, by a unanimous vote, a set of resolutions “In Gratitude and Appreciation for the Life, Work, and Service of Justice Antonin Scalia”; the group then moved to the courtroom for a special session of the court (which was not live-streamed), at which Acting Solicitor General Ian Gershengorn and Attorney General Loretta Lynch asked the court to accept the resolutions. In addressing the justices, Lynch invoked Scalia’s “razor-sharp brilliance,” “unmatched eloquence,” and “charisma,” observing that he pursued “wealth of ideas” rather than material wealth and public service rather than public acclaim. She asked the court to accept the bar’s resolutions “on behalf of the lawyers of this nation.”
The final reflections of the day came from Chief Justice John Roberts, who noted that Scalia delivered his first opinion for the court 30 years ago today; between that opinion and his last, by Roberts’ count, Scalia wrote 282 majority opinions, along with over 300 separate concurrences and almost as many dissents. Many of these opinions, Roberts noted, are now taught in constitutional law classes around the nation, touching on areas ranging from separation of powers to the Second Amendment to the Sixth Amendment’s confrontation clause. Roberts also cited Scalia’s “incisive analysis,” “unforgettable prose,” and lively approach to oral argument. Although, Roberts said, he could not swear that there was “never a dull moment” in the courtroom, Scalia could be counted on to liven up the driest argument with incisive questions and “sotto voce insights” shared with his neighbors on the bench; this last observation drew a chuckle from Justice Clarence Thomas. After observing that Scalia “wrestled with ideas, not people, and he knew the difference,” and emphasizing how much his gregarious presence would be missed in the halls of the Supreme Court building, the Chief Justice accepted the resolutions of the bar and undertook to make them part of the court’s official record.