Scalia Among Greatest Figures in American Law

A former clerk mourns the loss of a mentor, counselor and man of faith

I write this in brief because words are hard to come by and tears are still fresh in my eyes in the hours after hearing of the sudden and unexpected death of my justice.

When someone learns that I clerked for Justice Scalia, the most common question I am asked is, “What was it like?” My answer has always been the same. It was intimidating, inspiring, and an experience I thank God for every day.

Imagine being a young 25-year-old clerk working as a professional intimate of one of the 10 greatest figures in the history of Anglo-American law in the thousand years of that tradition. You might as well ask me what was it like to clerk for Lord Chief Justice Coke or Chief Justice Marshall. There are many judges and justices who have written landmark opinions. But there are very few who have shaped or reshaped the entire philosophy of legal interpretation and the role of the courts as Justice Scalia did.

We clerks counted ourselves lucky if so much as one sentence we had drafted remained intact after the justice had spent an evening in his chair at home working the keyboard with a red wine in hand. Every word in his body of work was authentically “Scalia.”

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Although this will surprise many, I remember the justice as uncompromisingly intellectually humble. He was always willing to follow logic, research, and reasoning wherever it might take him, regardless of where his initial instincts and understandings may have placed him.

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He was completely devoted to the Rule of Law. He was devoted to a textualism that respected the role and meaning of language used by those who wrote our great Constitution and those vested in the Constitution with the power of creating our laws. He believed words have meaning. Oddly, that set him against many in the current age. The most important volume in his private chambers when I clerked for him was the Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Second Edition. He hated the Third Edition. It was an abomination because it described how words were used, rather than how they should be used, as the Second Edition had done. The Second Edition still sits next to my desk at home in tribute to him.

I never saw him delight as much as when his textualism brought the court (or him) to what one might consider a “liberal” outcome. These were the proof cases that allowed him to demonstrate the integrity and power of his philosophy of interpretation.

More than the justice, though, was the man. He was a model for us all. His priorities were always: 1) God, 2) family, and 3) country, in that order. I mourn tonight with Maureen and the family. I mourn for our country. We have lost truly one of the greats of the ages.

I learned so much from him about the law, history, and government. I learned much more from him about my faith by his example and words, in ways he perhaps never even knew. He was a wise mentor and counselor. 

I pray this evening that God will grant His good and faithful servant memory eternal.

Alex M. Azar II, who clerked for Associate Justice Antonin Scalia in October Term 1992, is president of Lilly USA, LLC.

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