Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Justice Scalia the Teacher

Academic journal article Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy

Justice Scalia the Teacher

Article excerpt

Clerking for Justice Scalia was not for the faint-hearted. The Justice did not want his clerks all to think alike or always to agree with him. Instead, he wanted us to debate with him about how the Court should best resolve the matters it was considering. Those chambers discussions were intensely Socratic, with the Justice cast as Socrates and the rest of us as interlocutors. The tone was bare-knuckled rather than genteel. For example, the Justice was quite capable of responding to a clerk's point by saying, "That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard!" Although he gave no quarter to our ideas, he equally expected no quarter for his own.

If this sounds grim, it was anything but. Like Justice Scalia himself, the discussions were playful without losing their seriousness of purpose. The Justice loved few things more than a good argument. Beaming or frowning as the moment warranted, he would let loose a melange of deep legal insights, snappy one-liners, clever hypotheticals, and apt references to the fruits of his classical education. When a clerk scored a point in the discussion, the Justice would happily exclaim, "That's good! I like that!"

The Justice had been a teacher, and in his heart he still was. Chambers discussions were one of the many ways in which he helped his clerks to become better lawyers. He also taught us by demolishing our draft opinions and replacing them with opinions that were shorter, more deeply reasoned, more precise, and vastly more readable. We learned by trying to emulate the Justice's clarity and vigor of expression. Other lessons were more direct. When the Justice detected an analytical or grammatical lapse, he enthusiastically helped us to see the error of our ways. The Justice also enjoyed discussing his theories of writing and grammar. For example, he explained that a good sentence is like an iceberg: Most of it is below the surface. Or as he once put it, "Ten carefully chosen words can do the work of a hundred."

The Justice set us a powerful example by the way he approached his work. Because he had taught regulated industries at the University of Chicago, he was very excited at the D.C. Circuit to get the assignment to write the opinion in cases involving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or the Interstate Commerce Commission. Although his colleagues on the Circuit must have appreciated his enthusiasm for such cases, some of his clerks at first did not. …

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