Six Supreme Court Justices join Mason community to dedicate Antonin Scalia Law School

Six Supreme Court justices joined the George Mason University community on Oct. 6 to formally dedicate the Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, with Justice Elena Kagan saying the newly named law school was fitting of a “remarkable judge and teacher.”

Scalia “will go down in history as one of the most important Supreme Court justices ever, and one of the greatest. He did nothing less than transform our legal culture,” said Kagan, who spoke on behalf of the court.

She addressed a room of more than 300 people that included Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr., and Sonia Sotomayor. Also on hand were members of the Supreme Court of Virginia and luminaries from the legal community. Mason President Ángel Cabrera, Rector Tom Davis and Law School Dean Henry N. Butler led a strong showing from the Mason community.

Scalia, who died in February, was remembered for his insistence on logic and discipline in legal reasoning as well as his passion for educating the next generations of lawyers.

Kagan fondly recalled Scalia’s visits to Harvard Law School as some of her favorite memories from when she served as dean, before her appointment to the Supreme Court.

“No one was more enthusiastic, more passionate about connecting with law students than Antonin Scalia,” she said. “He could grab hold of students, shake them and turn them upside down merely from his opinions.”

The renaming was the result of a combined $30 million gift -- $20 million from an anonymous donor and $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation – that has funded the creation of three scholarship programs that will allow hundreds of students to attend the law school. The scholarships will help Mason continue to be one of the most diverse universities in America.

Cabrera acknowledged that the gift and the renaming touched off a vigorous campus debate in the spring. He said that the debate was an important one for both the university and the broader higher education community that focused on the value of diversity of ideas.

“This whole journey afforded us the incredible opportunity to have a very important dialogue about the values of our university, of a great American research university, and honestly link them to the values of the American republic,” Cabrera said.

“Universities cannot afford to lose their commitment to diversity of ideas — not just diversity of backgrounds and origins, but diversity of ideas — and to protect the freedom to express those ideas and engage in civil discourse. Just like the example the United States Supreme Court sets for us every day, and just as the values of Justice Scalia have shown us for 30 years.”

Cabrera said the law school — and the debate about its name — is an example of the university’s commitment to “thinking out of the box.” That commitment is a key reason that, in less than 50 years, Mason has become the largest public research university in Virginia and achieved the highest research ranking by the Carnegie Classification of Higher Education. 

“The history of this university has been about doing things that were not the normal course of action,” Cabrera said. “If it weren’t for people before us thinking out of the box and doing what was necessary and what was right — not necessarily what was easy — this university would not exist.”

Butler thanked the many Scalia family members in attendance, sharing their sense of loss and the “genuine humility” that comes from naming the law school after Scalia.

“It is totally consistent with the originating principles of the school to name it after Antonin Scalia,” Butler said.

Donald W. Lemons, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia, noted that the law school’s motto – Learn. Challenge. Lead. – was an apt description of how Scalia lived his life. “He was a legal educator, a public servant and a justice with an extraordinary impact and legacy,” Lemons said.

In praising Scalia’s approach to the law and his approach to decision making, Lemons said “The courage to challenge accepted norms must be preceded by a willingness to accept challenge in the first place.”

The university’s support for the name touched Catherine Scalia Courtney, Scalia’s daughter who works as an administrative assistant and academic advisor at the Volgenau School of Engineering: “It’s pretty cool that on Mason Spirit Friday I get to wear a hat with my dad’s name on it.”