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Another Lesson From Scalia: Be Home for Dinner

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

Antonin Scalia died one year ago today, yet his influence on American law, and the Supreme Court in particular, remains as large as it ever was. His originalist and textualist approach to the law remains well-established. That approach "changed the way almost all judges, and so almost all lawyers, thank and talk about the law," Justice Kagan said when dedicating the Antonin Scalia Law School in October.

Republicans successfully held off President Obama's nomination for Scalia's replacement in order to ensure that a jurist in Nino's model was able to take "Scalia's seat." Now Neil Gorsuch could be joining the bench, continuing Scalia's legacy.

And while there's plenty to learn from Scalia's approach to statutory interpretation, his skill at writing, or his influence on his colleagues, one recent tribute reminded us of this important lesson from the late justice: always make it home for dinner.

Scalia at the Dinner Table

Ryan J. Walsh, the chief deputy solicitor general of Wisconsin and a former clerk to Justice Scalia, recently summed up the five lessons in living well that he learned from the justice. Some of them are as expected (be honest, engage with counterarguments) but one stood out: don't neglect the family dinner table.

Scalia, who raised nine children and had more than 30 grandchildren, always told his clerks to "Be home for dinner," Walsh writes. "Children are civilized at the dinner table."

"My own most vivid memories of Dad are set at the kitchen table," Scalia's son, Christopher, explained last year, in a memorial to his father:

It's true that we'd often discuss law, history and politics. But Dad's running gags ensured our kitchen would never be mistaken for a salon. Poor conversationalists got it worse than an unprepared lawyer during oral arguments: If anyone said "um," Dad would lead a chorus of "ummmmmmms" to spotlight this oratorical shortcoming. Sometimes the umming would spiral into a rendition of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra." (After his confirmation hearings, we were more than happy to point out that he had often said "uh" to the senators.)

It wasn't all oral argument prep and scolding for ums either:

Even when dinner conversation proceeded "um"-free, it could still descend into another of Dad's favorite pastimes: crumpling his napkin into a ball and throwing it into one of our glasses. Counterattacks were futile, equipped as he was with a narrow wine glass.

The Importance of Work-Life Balance

Justice Scalia would encourage his clerks to have the same commitment to family and to work-life balance, Walsh writes:

Work sometimes overcomes our plans, but it must never eclipse family, the justice believed. Nor should it crowd out other obligations. "Try to find [work] that enables you to maintain a human existence," he told a group of law students, "time to attend to your other very real responsibilities -- to your family, to your church or synagogues, to your communities."

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