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The first words Justice Scalia ever spoke to me—I’ll never forget them—were these: “Mr. Young. Yale Law School. Do you realize what a disservice you have done yourself?”
He asked me that as he flipped through my application papers during my interview in August 2004 to become his law clerk. His chambers were dark, masculine, and foreboding—the head of an elk the Justice had killed, mounted on the wall, gazed at me as I tried to formulate the best response I could.
Those first few terrifying moments wouldn’t seem destined to lead to a clerkship at all, much less what I also got from Justice Scalia—nearly a dozen years of extraordinary kindness on a personal and professional level. But they did.
The Justice’s sudden death on Saturday first and foremost robbed his family of a model husband, father, grand-father. It robbed America of perhaps its greatest jurist. And it robbed me and my fellow Scalia clerks—the group he called “the Clerkerati”—of a mentor who inspired us and continued to welcome us year after year.
Every Scalia clerk recognizes how much each of us owes “the Boss.” Simply plucking us from among many equally qualified candidates to be one of four law clerks in a Term was a life-changing gift. It was life-changing because it opened to us the work of our Nation’s highest court in the most intimate way imaginable, an invaluable gift for future careers in the law as lawyers, professors, government officials, and judges. And it was life-changing because of the credential it bestowed. Being a “Supreme Court clerk” carried cache in the rest of the world, granting far wider access to premier opportunities to be lawyers, professors, officials, or judges than we otherwise would have had.
But as much as we are grateful that he gave us a year as a Supreme Court clerk, Scalia clerks take special pride in being Scalia clerks. There are many reasons for that pride. I’ll describe just a few.
For one thing, Justice Scalia was—and I am confident will be for many generations—one of the towering intellects in the law. His clerks, and to a greater extent with each passing year, had studied his decisions in class after class in law school. The Justice wrote beautifully, powerfully, persuasively; he combined an unmatched intellectual energy with an exceptionally nimble and witty style. Law students for these reasons routinely react positively when asked to read a Scalia opinion, even if they dislike its bottom line. Given all this, I doubt I am alone in experiencing the “impostor syndrome” as a law clerk for a living legend.
Justice Scalia was not merely a great intellect, but a rigorously principled judge. He was certainly “conservative” in many ways, but he truly did not care a bit about a case’s political consequences or about anyone’s political preferences—including, most importantly, his own. No one who knew him would contend that he had a weakness for criminal defendants, but no Justice achieved more for vindicating the rights of the accused (including those clearly guilty) than Justice Scalia, often to the consternation of other “conservatives.” And he surely labored under no bias favoring plaintiffs in state courts who ran up mega punitive-damages awards on flimsy evidence—but consistently held that no principle in the Constitution of the United States allowed him, as a federal judge, to tinker with those verdicts merely because of their size. Sometimes his votes aligned with his private views, but that was just as coincidental and irrelevant to his judgment as when they didn’t. Scalia clerks were proud to serve such a principled boss.
And perhaps most of all, Justice Scalia was just an amazing, inspiring person. He loved high culture—art and the opera and literature—but he loved spending hours and days hunting. He enjoyed a delicious pizza (my co-clerks and I had some of our best times with the Boss at the since-closed A.V. Ristorante), but also was a connoisseur of fine dining. He had friends in the highest of high places all over the world, but he and Mrs. Scalia enjoyed hosting the clerks at their home, staying up late into the night with them trying different spirits and liqueurs. The Justice was the paragon of Originalism, but his closest friend on the Court was Justice Ginsburg, because he knew how to love and value people aside from their legal views. He took delight in the life of the mind, and showed how a job well done could truly be its own reward.
I will miss Justice Scalia deeply—I do already. I’m sad that I’ve had my last conversation, at least in this world. But I’ll never be done being grateful to him for the profound and positive difference he has made in my life, for the reasons listed here and for many others too. Those of us in the Clerkerati have only one real way to repay and honor him, and that is to do the best we can to exemplify his ideals of scholarship, principle, and humanity in our own lives and careers. I shall try.