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Would You Have Survived Class With Professor Scalia?

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

As the world remembers Justice Scalia this week, plenty of attention has been given to his role as the Supreme Court's conservative leader, originalism's most successful advocate, or even the bench's most sarcastic judge. But many of the retrospectives miss a major part of Justice Scalia's life: his time as a law professor.

Justice Scalia spent much of his early career bouncing back and forth between practice and academia, including seven years teaching law at the University of Chicago. Could you have survived Professor Scalia?

Getting Cold Called by Scalia

If you were a law student at the University of Chicago in the late 70s, you might have had a young professor Scalia for contracts -- or administrative law, or constitutional law, or federal communications law, or just hanging around your Federalist Society clubhouse. Scalia, a Harvard Law grad, was attracted to the school's conservative reputation and "Straussian" approach to textual interpretation, according to Chicago's student newspaper, The Chicago Maroon. The free tuition for his then seven children was also a benefit.

Getting cold called by Professor Scalia in Admin might be the closest many lawyers ever got to experiencing Supreme Court oral arguments. And, if Scalia's SCOTUS tactics were any indication, it wouldn't have been a pleasant experience. Here's how former Solicitor General and Scalia clerk, Paul Clement, describes Scalia's oral argument tactics:

Justice Scalia's questions were pointed and inimitable. He came to each argument fully prepared to engage with counsel. To paraphrase the justice, when it was time for oral argument, "this wolf came as a wolf."

But He'd Go Easy on Students, Right?

Of course, many of his students remember his classes fondly -- or at least without noticeable signs of trauma. He was "an engaging teacher who used a mythical apple (linked, in Scalia style, to the Founding Fathers), and as the example in each of the hypothetical contracts in his Contracts class," according to the Maroon.

But Scalia has never been one to pull punches with students. When liberal (or just upstart) students would confront him about his opinions or approach to the law, he had no problem shutting them down, as he did with this student who asked about cameras in the Court, or this one, who took offense to the Justice's homophobia, or this one, who second guessed Bush v. Gore.

So, would you have survived? Yes, probably. But it would have been a struggle, and a worthwhile one at that.

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