'Not an ogre:' A former clerk told us what it was really like to work with Justice Scalia

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 27: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia takes part in an interview with Chris Wallace on 'FOX News Sunday' at the FOX News D.C. Bureau on July 27, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)Paul Morigi/Getty ImagesJustice Antonin Scalia died on Saturday, February 13.

A few weeks ago, I reached out to former clerks of the now-deceased Justice Antonin Scalia for a feature story on what it was like to work with one of history’s most fascinating Supreme Court justices.

One of those former clerks, Brian T. Fitzpatrick (now a law professor at Vanderbilt) spoke to me at length about Scalia’s personality and why he thinks the public was so fascinated by him.

“His persona is kind of gruff because he has some sharp elbows in his opinion-writing,” Fitzpatrick told me last month.

But, he added, “If you ever go to a cocktail party there is always a big group of people around him. He is not an ogre. He is a charming, sophisticated person.”

Scalia, who died Saturday at 79, seemed to make headlines more than any other justice — in part, because he had a colourful way of describing what could be dry topics like Constitutional originalism. He famously described the Constitution as not a living document but rather “dead, dead, dead.”

When I spoke to Fitzpatrick, he told me that Scalia set himself apart from the other justices by trying to reach a broad audience that included anybody from top lawyers to young people.

“That is what leads him to be such a sharp and edgy writer and such a performer,” Fitzpatrick told me, after noting that many of the other justices are “pretty darned boring.”

Indeed, Alan Dershowitz told Business Insider on Saturday that Scalia “changed the style of Supreme Court decision-writing — making it much more personal.”

Scalia reached his decisions by gathering his clerks around for a spirited debate, with Fitzpatrick often playing the devil’s advocate and arguing the views his justice opposed.

“The debates were about, ‘How can Scalia be the best Scalia? … The justice is pretty confident in his views, and he’s a pretty smart guy,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was rare that we would bring up something that he hadn’t thought of himself.”

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