Antonin Scalia to Law Professors: “What Endures Is What Happens In The Classroom”

February 16th, 2016

Over the following days, weeks, months, and years, there will be countless remembrances and anecdotes about how Justice Scalia has touched all of our lives. One such experience stands out from fairly early in my academic career. In January 2013, Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner spoke at the Federalist Society Faculty Conference, which was held in New Orleans alongside the AALS. (Back then, we were still in the shadows; no longer). During his brief, informal remarks, with a drink in hand, Justice Scalia offered some timeless wisdom to the law professors in the room.

Scalia recalled that when he first started teaching at the University of Chicago, he promised himself he would always put his students first, and would never tell a student he didn’t have time because he needed to finish an article. But slowly, he succumbed to temptation, and began to put greater and greater importance on scholarship. One day he found himself thinking he didn’t have time to meet with students. He was very upset with himself for that, and decided to change his course. He warned all of us–including your humble blogger, who at that point had only been teaching for about 5 months–to never forget about the students, and not to be intoxicated by the lure of scholarship.

Professor Antonin Scalia practiced what he preached. He would go on to be the original faculty adviser for the Federalist Society, an organization that grew beyond his wildest imagination in his shadow, and will endure for generations in his memory. Even after he was appointed a Judge, Scalia continued to barnstorm the country, teaching audiences of all backgrounds about the Constitution. (How many of you heard Scalia personally say the Constitution was “Dead!”). And, as he liked to remind us, he wrote his pointed dissents not for the moment, but for casebooks, so professors would discuss his writings for generations. (Hint: his strategy worked).

Paul Caron links to an article Justice Scalia wrote that speaks to the importance of teaching, and the enduring legacy it leaves on the rule of law:

What endures is the human spirit, and if I have any legacy, anything that really endures, it is in the preserving and passing on of that spirit.

I say much the same thing to law faculties when I have the occasion to speak to them at faculty lunches. They are obsessed with publishing. They think this is going to be their mark on the law, their legacy. I tell them how foolish that is. The shelflife of the great American law review article is about five years, and of the great American treatise maybe 25; after that, they’re just of historical interest. What endures is what happens in the classroom. I still have people come up to me who were my students at the University of Virginia, in the 1970s for Pete’s sake, who are full of gratitude and say, you know, I was in your contracts class and you lit a spark in me for the love of the law and I never lost it. Some of those people have passed it on to others. So I tell the law professors, that’s where you make your mark. That’s where your legacy will be, in passing on your spirit of the law to others who will pass it on once again.

Scalia’s message has stuck with me. Teaching at the South Texas College of Law, where teaching is the priority–and indeed, for purposes of our tenure process, weighs more heavily than scholarship–has helped me realize just how right Justice Scalia is. A few judges may read my briefs; a few professors may read my articles; a few lawyers may read my blog. But I have roughly 250 students a year, who are required by the ABA cartel to sit in my classroom for 56 hours a semester, and listen to me talk about the law. I do not take that obligation lightly. Beyond anything I write, the greatest impact I will have will be my students, and whatever spark I can light in them. We owe it to Professor Scalia to do no less.