U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was known for his indelible wit and intellect, his strict interpretation of the Constitution and his view on the role of judges in a democratic society.
He was also a kindly host to students, with a little-known but special connection to N.C. State University.
In 2003, at the prompting of his then-law clerk, John O’Quinn, the justice met with a group of NCSU’s Park Scholars. O’Quinn, a Harvard law graduate and former student body president at N.C. State, was one of four Scalia clerks at the high court. He persuaded his boss to give a brief talk to the students.
It would become a regular event, when each class of Park Scholars made an annual trek to Washington. They would tour the Supreme Court and meet in a conference room with Scalia, who answered their questions. Then he’d pose for a photograph with the class in a small courtyard.
There were only a few years when Scalia wasn’t available, so he’d ask his clerks, and once, Justice Clarence Thomas, to stand in.
“It was all very exciting,” said Amanda Sautner, 20, an NCSU junior from Warrington, Pa., who was part of the group in 2014. “He came in, and I remember he really commanded a presence. He was very sure of himself and had very strong opinions.”
The discussion centered on the Constitution and whether it was a living document – an idea Scalia rejected. Since his death Saturday, Park Scholars past and present are realizing what an opportunity they had.
It was just a very special moment, and I’m glad that I could have that before he passed away.
Amanda Sautner, an NCSU junior
“It was just a very special moment,” Sautner said, “and I’m glad that I could have that before he passed away.”
O’Quinn, who grew up in Fuquay-Varina, is remembering, too. Devastated to learn that his mentor was gone so suddenly, O’Quinn has thought about his year clerking at the Supreme Court, an experience he describes as “awe-inspiring.”
Now a partner in a Washington law firm, O’Quinn, 41, remembers the vigorous debates, the mountains of work and the back-and-forth with Scalia. He and three other clerks served one full term, summarizing some of the 8,000 petitions that come to the court and preparing briefs prior to oral arguments for the cases the court takes up. After the arguments, clerks helped with early drafts of opinions.
In the 2002-03 term, Scalia authored a fair number of dissenting opinions.
“Every memorable Scalia line you’ve ever read was entirely Justice Scalia,” O’Quinn said. “Law clerks would occasionally try to imitate, but none came close. He was genuine through and through in that regard. ... He had an incomparable rhetorical flair.”
Every memorable Scalia line you’ve ever read was entirely Justice Scalia. Law clerks would occasionally try to imitate, but none came close. He was genuine through and through in that regard. ... He had an incomparable rhetorical flair.
John O’Quinn, who grew up in Fuquay-Varina and clerked with Scalia
Scalia’s opinions were readable and memorable.
“He had no use for legal jargon,” O’Quinn said. “He wanted to convey his ideas in a clear and concise way. If you said it in two sentences, he could get it down to one. And I don’t think he was playing to an audience, but he was writing for the ages. That is to say, he knew, particularly when he was writing a dissent, that he had ideas that he wanted the next generation of law students and legal scholars to really have to think upon and to consider because a dissent is in some ways an act of subversion. You’re trying to change the outcome, not today, but tomorrow.”
Scalia never failed to admonish the court when he thought it was overstepping its bounds, O’Quinn said. Despite often writing the dissents, Scalia was considered “a happy warrior,” a description O’Quinn thinks is apt.
“He was gregarious, he was fun, he was argumentative but in a fun way,” O’Quinn recalled. “He enjoyed the banter with his law clerks. He liked having law clerks who would disagree with him and try to take him to task on a particular issue, because he thought that it made him better in his opinion. Life in his chambers was very lively and very thoughtful.”
Each year, he invited all former clerks to a black tie gala the first Saturday in May. The rule was that a clerk had to be engaged or married to bring a date to the event, and there were rumors that more than one engagement was timed in order to attend the Scalia reunion.
The Supreme Court in general was a family atmosphere, O’Quinn said. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would invite the Scalia clerks to tea, or Scalia would lunch with the Kennedy clerks or the Souter clerks.
Last spring Scalia held a retirement party for one of his secretaries that featured an opera singer, and Scalia joined in the singing.
“He was so vivacious, so full of life,” O’Quinn said. “I think that’s part of what makes his passing so hard.”
O’Quinn ran into Scalia a few months ago, vibrant as ever. Now, as debate rages about what happens with the appointment of a successor, O’Quinn doesn’t presume to say what Scalia would think.
“The justice often commented on how he had been confirmed 98 to 0, and that just wasn’t the world that we lived in anymore,” O’Quinn said. “I think he lamented the politicization of judges, but I think he also saw that that was a reflection of the court, through its decisions, taking a role that he didn’t think that the court should have. So I doubt he would be surprised about the current debate.”
O’Quinn said he’s grateful for his year with Scalia and for the time he spent with Park Scholars.
Mark DeMaria, 21, a junior from Egg Harbor Township, N.J., said the Park Scholar class is more liberal than conservative, but students asked questions of Scalia in a respectful way when they gathered in 2014.
“It was very generous of him to be able to provide that experience to so many,” DeMaria said. “I feel very fortunate. I think that speaks volumes about his character, about wanting to reach out to North Carolina State students like that.”