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Supreme Court Justice Scalia Addresses 1L Class

November 17, 2015 — “There are rules about interpreting texts and you’ve got to know what they are,” said Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (C’57), sharing his views on originalism, legal education and other topics with the 1L class at Georgetown Law. Students spend most of the first year learning the common law, invented by judges, when the job of the modern judge is to interpret texts, Scalia explained at the November 16th event.

Scalia’s 20-minute talk on education was followed by more than 30 minutes of responses to written student questions, chosen by Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor and Professor Randy Barnett. How much influence do Scalia’s law clerks have on his opinions? “More than my colleagues,” the justice replied, to great laughter.

Was there a turning point that led to his originalist approach to constitutional interpretation? “Where did you get the notion that it changes?” Scalia responded. “That’s the question you should ask these other guys.” 

Does an originalist approach leave room for social advocacy and protecting civil rights? “If you believe in democracy, you should put it to the people,” Scalia asserted, claiming that it is not up to him to identify which minority group deserves protection. “Why would you pick a body [of nine lawyers] to rewrite the Constitution, to add those provisions that it’s lacking?”

Asked whether he considered law students’ reactions when drafting his majority opinions, the answer was no — but dissents were another matter. “Who do you think I write the dissent for?” Scalia said, noting that he aims to be clear, interesting and sometimes fun. “Because I know that although 95 percent of law professors don’t agree with originalism, textualism and all of that, they have to do something in class, right?”

Treanor said at the event that he was pleased to give students the opportunity to hear “one of the giants of the bench and bar.” Last year, 1Ls welcomed retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens; recent graduating classes have heard from Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan. Yet Scalia, Treanor noted, is also a Hoya, having earned his undergraduate degree at Georgetown. “My hope is [that] one of you will follow in his footsteps,” Treanor told the 1Ls. “Maybe someday one of you will be giving this lecture.”

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