From the New York Times. Written by Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen.
When I first met Antonin Scalia, I was a small child with one brown ponytail atop my head. Which is odd, because I was a full-grown woman and my hair was short and blond. Still, sitting on the black leather sofa in his chambers, I remember shrinking. Overpowered by his intellect and his enormous personality, I felt that my feet no longer touched the floor. I had become Lily Tomlin’s iconic character, Edith Ann, in that great big rocking chair. And now I had to convince this giant of a man to hire me as his law clerk.
When I share that memory with others who were fortunate enough to have worked for him, heads, mostly male and uniformly accomplished, nod in recognition. I don’t believe that any of “the clerkorati,” as he liked to call us, ever felt quite full-size in his presence.
I am often asked what it was like to be a woman clerking for Justice Scalia. “Much like being a man clerking for him” is my easy answer. Justice Scalia believed in one simple principle: That law came to the court as an is not anought. Statutes, cases and the Constitution were to be read for what they said, not for what the judges wished they would say. Each of his opinions needed to conform to that principle and to be written clearly, forcefully and accurately. If you could help him with that, you were useful to him. If not, then not. When we were working, we sometimes joked that he could not even remember our names.
The final step in producing an opinion, after the justice had turned his elegant and pointed pen on the humble drafts we law clerks submitted, was called “booking.” We would wheel a library cart into his chambers (we used actual print volumes back then) and sit beside him on the big leather couch, feeling ourselves once again grow smaller as he read through every statute, case or article cited in support, front to back.
Woe to the clerk who tried to cut a corner, or to cheat even a little; worse yet if he thought you had done it to try to reach a particular outcome that the law would not support. And no explaining why it wasn’t your fault. “Strict liability for law clerks,” we used to joke. But that was the right rule. “This is the Supreme Court, not a moot court competition,” he would remind us. “We have a duty to get things right.”
As impatient as he may have been with our missteps, he truly valued our input. He had no use for sycophants. He wanted to get things right; and, therefore, he valued clerks who would argue with him about why his initial thinking might be wrong. If you could prove your case, you could win him over. But it could not be done with appeals to emotion, or outcome, or legacy, or anything else. The only way to convince him was to show him that the law was on the other side (usually by peeking nervously over his shoulder as he read, and questioned, and then reread the cases). My proudest moment as his clerk was convincing him, with two sleepless nights of research into dusty old precedents, that a criminal defendant should win a case that none of the justices originally thought he should win. I’m pretty sure that was the moment he was most proud of me, too.
As much as he was all about the work, the Boss, as all his clerks affectionately called him, also loved to play. We once had a beer tasting in chambers, when the Boss’s questions at oral argument revealed that he didn’t know the difference between a porter and a pale ale. He was more of a Chianti man and would often take us to lunch at his beloved A.V. Ristorante Italiano, where he would order a pizza with extra anchovies. We began the year casting lots for which one of us would be forced to help him eat it; by the end of the year, we had all decided that anchovies were pretty good.
When we weren’t working, he had no trouble with our names and, indeed, treated us as though by being his law clerks, we had all acquired a new one: “Scalia.” His annual law-clerk gathering — a black-tie dinner, with a comical roast of the justice and a reading of some of his best zingers from opinions past — was a family reunion. He and his wife, Maureen, took a personal interest in our lives, our careers and our children, whom the justice referred to as his “grandclerks.”
Like any family, we had our disagreements, both with him and among ourselves. We have differing views on law, politics and religion. But I have yet to meet a Scalia clerk who was not grateful to the man who taught us, shaped us, and launched us into our lives in the law.
Justice Scalia’s passing leaves a giant void in the court and in the intellectual discourse over the law. It is difficult to imagine anyone filling the gap. We, the clerkorati, left behind in our great big chairs, feel also an enormous hole in our hearts. We will miss him.