Adieu to the grammar nerd in the black robe

In language as in law, Antonin Scalia showed a welcome capacity for collaboration and friendship across ideological divides.

Jim Mone/AP
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia speaks at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia of the US Supreme Court is being mourned in the worlds of jurisprudence, politics, and even hunting. 

No kidding. He invited his fellow justice Elena Kagan to go skeet shooting soon after she joined the court, and by the fall of 2012, she had bagged her first deer, on a trip with him to Wyoming – even though, as she noted later, “I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and this was not something we really did, you know.

Justice Scalia’s friendship with Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg set the gold standard – the platinum standard – for workplace friendships. It transcended their profound ideological differences.

It even inspired a one-act comic opera by Derrick Wang, which premièred last summer. It prompted the Los Angeles Times to plead, “Could we please make it a constitutional requirement that no one can be sworn into office in the White House or Congress without having first seen ‘Scalia/Ginsburg’?”

But Scalia’s contribution to the world of legal writing was immense as well.

He is largely identified with originalism, which The American Heritage Dictionary defines as “The theory that the US Constitution should be interpreted based on the intent of its authors, as determined by examining evidence of their understanding of the meaning of its wording in its historical context.”

He was also closely identified with textualism – which the AHD explains is a “theory of legal interpretation emphasizing the importance of the everyday meanings of the words used in statutes.”

Another of Scalia’s important partnerships was with his writing collaborator, Bryan Garner. Mr. Garner is a bright star in the firmament of copy editing: The New Yorker once said he “might be the world’s premier authority on grammar and usage in English.” He’s also a lawyer and law professor. 

The two men met in 2006, the magazine related, at a breakfast Scalia had offered after declining to sit for a formal interview on writing and legal advocacy. By the end of the meal, though, Garner had won the justice over. He got his interview, and what’s more, the two men went on to write two books together: “Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges” and “Reading the Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts.”

As lawyer Neal Goldfarb wrote in his LAWnLinguistics blog: “Like Scalia, Garner is a textualist, and Reading Law is in part a brief in support of textualism.”

“Reading Law” was meant to help the “many judges who believe in fidelity to text [but] lack the interpretive tools necessary to that end,” the authors explained. And so the book sets out “the nuts-and-bolts methods that the authors think should be used in interpreting legal texts,” as Mr. Goldfarb put it.

Garner disagreed with Scalia on many issues – maybe as many as Justice Ginsburg did. But the two men’s work together was another sign that, even in these contentious times, collaboration and friendship across ideological divides are still possible.

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