The public knew him as a leader on the conservative wing of the Supreme Court whose sharp-edged legal opinions for decades helped frame the nation’s social and political debates. But in the world of academia, Justice Antonin Scalia also was known as a jurist who loved to drop by law schools.
Justice Elena Kagan recalled her late colleague’s passion for these visits Thursday at the dedication of the newly renamed Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. Kagan, one of six justices from the high court at the event in Arlington, Va., said Scalia relished connecting with students because it gave him a forum to talk about ideas. She saw this firsthand when she served as dean of Harvard Law School.
“I had the good fortune to host the justice several times,” Kagan said, “and those days were among the most fun I ever had as dean.” Kagan said Scalia displayed “his brilliance, his wit, his good cheer, and, well, let’s say his confidence in the manifest rightness of all his opinions.”
Kagan, whose opinions on the court frequently were opposed to Scalia’s, nonetheless made clear her admiration for the late justice, who died in February.
“He’ll go down in history as one of the most important Supreme Court justices ever, and also one of the greatest,” Kagan said, noting that it was a “great, great thing” that the law school was named for him.
The dedication came six months after George Mason announced that it would rename its law school for Scalia, an action controversial in some quarters. The renaming coincided with $30 million in combined gifts to support the school – $20 million from an anonymous donor and $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation. The Koch family is well known for its support of right-wing causes.
Skeptics, including some of George Mason’s faculty and students, said the gift and the renaming showed that donors were wielding undue influence over Virginia’s largest public university. Protesters displayed a banner outside the law school Thursday morning as people gathered for the dedication. “Protect Public Ed Not Private Interests,” it said.
“Our concerns have been ignored by the leadership of George Mason University,” one of the demonstrators, sophomore Janine Gaspari, said.
George Mason’s new association with Scalia has drawn unprecedented attention to the 600-student law school. U.S. News and World Report ranks the law school 45th in the nation.