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To those who knew him best, Justice Antonin Scalia was “Nino,” a man whose contrarian legal views belied his warm and friendly demeanor off the bench.
Fellow justices gathered at the Mayflower Hotel on Tuesday to remember their friend. It was a memorial made all the more poignant by the fact that they were set to take up on Wednesday one of the most important abortion cases in decades — the first high-profile issue to be heard since Scalia's death left the court with eight justices.
Scalia, the bench's ideological conservative known for his fiery comments in and out of the courtroom died last month. He was 79.
On Tuesday, his friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate a voice they said will be sorely missed.
There were memories of lively conversations over the court opinions.
“Just a horrible opinion…one of the worst ever,” Justice Clarence Thomas recalled Justice Scalia saying to him. “Nino you wrote it,” Thomas retorted.
Scalia was remembered for his sense of humor by many, as a magnificent performer by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a poor estimator of travel time by his daughter Catherine.
“That was Justice Scalia’s gift,” said John Manning, a former clerk for Justice Scalia who is now a professor at Harvard Law School.
Scalia took boring technical everyday law and he showed what was at stake for constitutional democracy, Manning said. Clerking for Justice Scalia changed Manning’s life, he said.
But it was Scalia’s ability to move past ideological differences and reach out to others that those who knew him said they’ll miss most.
“No surprise that Justice Scalia and I were on opposite sides,” Justice Ginsburg said referring to the controversial Bush v. Gore case that decided the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.
Ginsburg said her direct line rang around 9:00 p.m. that evening.
“It was Justice Scalia. He didn’t say get over it.”
Instead, he asked why she was still there and told her to go home and take a hot bath.
“It was good advice and I followed,” she said.
Thomas, who until recently had not asked a question during court arguments for an entire decade, got choked up towards to end of his speech and took a moment before finishing.
Scalia was from the Northeast while Thomas was from the Southeast, Thomas explained. Scalia came from a house of educators and Thomas came from a household of almost no formal education.
But they shared their Catholic faith and Jesuit education.
“We were from different origins heading in the same direction so we walked together and worked together for almost a quarter of a century. Along the way we developed an unbreakable bond of trust and affection,” Thomas said.
Scalia’s relationships stretched beyond Supreme Court Justices.
“We teased each other about our different ethnic backgrounds,” said Judge Laurence Silberman of the United States Court of Appeals, an old friend of Scalia.
As a New Yorker Scalia thought he better understood Jewish culture, Silberman said.
Scalia’s daughters Catherine and Mary reminded those who were there how important faith was to their family.
Scalia would have wanted a Latin mass for his funeral mass, his daughter, Mary said.
“Since when do we care what dad wants? He wouldn’t want us to change the way of doing things,” she quipped.
She said the last two weeks were emotionally exhausting and spiritually renewing.
His daughter, Catherine, recalled the times he placed a dollop of shaving cream on her nose as she would say goodbye to him, or the times he would wave his hands in front of the grill on Saturdays ordering his hamburgers to be juicy.
“I’ll cherish the mental snapshots of dad on all fours chasing us through the house as tickle monster,” she said.
From weekend grilling to lunches with clerks, Thomas joked about the meals they shared.
While Justice Thomas and the Supreme Court clerks will continue the tradition of toasting “Nino” as they gather there will be “no anchovy pizza” Thomas said.
“He was always quick to forgive to teach and to move on,” Justice Joan Larsen said who also clerked for Justice Scalia.
She recited a story back from when she handed in a draft opinion and sited Webster’s Third Dictionary.
This was a short time after Scalia v. Merriam-Webster where Justice Scalia had made it clear
Webster’s Third was no dictionary at all.
Larsen quickly made an excuse for herself and reminded him he had a copy of Webster’s Third Dictionary in his front office.
The audience laughed as Larsen recited Justice Scalia’s response.
“This my dear he said is nothing but a trap laid for the unwary.”
Now appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court, Larsen said people began to applaud when she mentioned she had clerked for Justice Scalia.
“Not groups of lawyers or judges….just ordinary Michiganders,” she said.
Larsen said she had called and asked to speak with Justice Scalia to tell him.
She got deep into her writing on that Wednesday when she planned to call him. She thought she
would give Justice Scalia a call on the following Monday.
“Monday never came,” she said.