William and Mary Law School

The Supreme Court and the Thoughts of Justice Scalia

Today, Tim took Amanda and I to the Supreme Court for a lecture by Justice Scalia hosted by the Supreme Court historical society. I’ve been lucky these first few weeks (and I’m sure I will continue to be throughout the summer) as Tim is making a concerted effort to include various educational sessions and components into Amanda and my internships so that we get the most out of them. Today was a visit to the United States Supreme Court for a tour, and more notably a lecture by Justice Scalia. Having been a history major with a concentration in constitutional history, and never having been to the Supreme Court before, it is needless to say that I was very excited for this trip.

After taxiing from Arlington to downtown D.C., we got to the Supreme Court early so that we could walk around a bit before the lecture. Although the ongoing construction on the façade of the building slightly dampens the aesthetics, there was still an undeniable power and awe that I felt as I walked into the most powerful and important court in our nation. For about a half an hour or so, the three of us enjoyed the displays and read about the history of the Supreme Court building. Learning about all of the different great architectural components really helped increase my appreciation for that amazing building, although just walking around it will pretty much do the trick. I still marvel though at the thought that for years, the Supreme Court was simply housed in the basement of the Capitol. The thought of landmark cases with repercussions throughout the country being issued from a basement is difficult to comprehend. Just as we were about to be allowed into the courtroom for the lecture, I got a chance to admire the statue of Chief Justice John Marshall. I’ve always admired Chief Justice Marshall and his remarkable accomplishments. Maybe that is partially why I attend the same law school that he did, walking by a statue of him every morning and attending class in a building with his name on it. The statue of him in the Supreme Court is remarkable, evoking a definite sense of power as his massive figure sits enthroned in front of you. While I have a soft spot for his more humble representation alongside George Wythe that stands out front of William & Mary Law School, he was no less impressive here.

We were then allowed to file into the courtroom where we were to hear Justice Scalia talk with Professor Bryan Garner about the book they had just completed, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts. As we waited for Justice Scalia and Professor Garner, I couldn’t help but be absorbed by the importance of the room. Looking at the bench where the nine justices sit, and the podium where some of the greatest lawyers in our country are grilled like they were still in law school, I felt as if maybe I shouldn’t be here. Did I really deserve to be in this place? Did they really let me in here? This is one of the most important rooms in our nation. Of course these were silly preoccupations, since anyone is allowed in the courtroom to observe an argument if they show up early enough. It definitely enhanced my appreciation, though, of the opportunity I had been given to visit.

Then came the lecture, which was overall more enjoyable then one would probably expect of a legal lecture. This was actually the second time that I had gotten to see Justice Scalia speak in person. Early in the first semester of last year he visited William & Mary Law School while on a book tour, and actually taught an administrative law class while there. I was lucky enough to sit in on that class, and so this was the second time I had the privilege of being lectured to by a sitting Supreme Court justice. One of the most memorable aspects, and something that was apparent from the start, was his undeniable familiarity and chemistry with Professor Garner. The two had clearly presented together multiple times before, and the lecture was filled with a friendly and humorous interplay between the two. I was particularly appreciative of this, as it contributed a levity to what would otherwise have been a fairly dry hour. Don’t get me wrong though, the content was interesting as well. Justice Scalia and Professor Garner’s book centered on how to interpret legal texts, aiming to serve as a resource for judges, lawyers, and other legal professionals. The format of the book, which translated to the format of the lecture, was a list of canons of interpretation that the authors would describe and illustrate. Much of the legal principles and canons that Justice Scalia and Professor Garner espoused were straightforward and rooted in legal history. Others clearly derived more from the legal philosophies of the two. Yet, if you pay attention at all to Justice Scalia’s opinions and jurisprudence, especially his dissents, than his views here should not take you by surprise. Yet whether you agreed with all of the points he made or not, his engaging personality is undeniable, and I walked away from the lecture glad for the experience.

Following the lecture we were given a tour of the Supreme Court. Yet again I was struck by the beauty of the building, and the great history which marks its halls. After visiting the courtroom, library, and conference rooms, and learning some more about the history of the Court and its justices, Tim, Amanda and I called it a day and left. It had been a memorable and educational first trip to our nation’s high court.