Metro

Antonin Scalia remembered for close ties to Harvard

Justice Antonin Scalia spoke at a 2004 event sponsored at an event sponsored by The Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/File
Justice Antonin Scalia spoke at a 2004 event sponsored at an event sponsored by The Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Antonin Scalia once vowed to Alan Dershowitz that he would someday convince the Harvard scholar that the Supreme Court’s decision to effectively award the presidency to George W. Bush was correct.

The two old friends never did agree on that, but for Dershowitz, such disagreements helped define their relationship. They once debated constitutional interpretation for two hours in front of 150 students at Harvard Law School, where Scalia had studied and maintained close ties until his death this weekend.

Many across Boston’s legal and political spectrum were mourning Scalia Sunday as a brilliant jurist who relished any opportunity to defend his conservative points of view and who was capable of inspiring goodwill and respect even among those who held opposite opinions.

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“He was certainly among the top 10 of most influential justices in history,” said Dershowitz. “His writing style, very accessible to the public, made him a kind of popular, almost cult figure. I’ll miss him personally.”

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Scalia, a New Jersey native, was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1986 by then-President Reagan. Long before he joined the bench, he was well known in Cambridge, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1960 from Harvard Law.

Law School Dean Martha Minow also described Scalia as “one of the most influential jurists in American history.”

“He changed how the court approaches statutory interpretation and in countless areas introduced new ways of thinking about the Constitution and the role of the court that will remain important for years to come,” Minow said in a statement.

Scalia, 79, remained a fixture at Harvard, with the school establishing an annual lecture in his name. Fellow Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, both a friend and ideological opponent of Scalia, has been among the speakers.

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In 2014, Scalia returned to Harvard to serve as a judge in the Ames Moot Court Competition

Governor Charlie Baker issued a statement Saturday praising Scalia’s “intellect, wit, and ability to get along with colleagues, despite philosophical differences.”

Former attorney general Martha Coakley also said she was saddened by Scalia’s death. Coakley argued a case before Scalia and the Supreme Court in 2008 that involved the right of criminal defendants to challenge crime lab reports in court.

In 2009, the court ruled against the state in a 5-to-4 decision, with Scalia delivering the opinion. “He was very smart, committed to public service and [there were] many things to like about him: his love of the opera; the way he opened up questions in the court, I think, was important for the court and for the institution,” said Coakley.

A devout Catholic, Scalia twice attended the Red Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross organized by the Catholic Lawyers’ Guild of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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The Mass honoring the state’s lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals is generally timed to coincide with the start of the new Supreme Court session.

Scalia most recently attended in 2006, and was the featured speaker at a lunch that followed. While leaving the Mass, Scalia ruffled some feathers when he responded to a Boston Herald reporter’s question by flicking his fingers below his chin.

He later said that the paper had misinterpreted the gesture, made in response to an inquiry about his public participation in a religious event. He said it was simply a Sicilian display of disinterest.

In a statement, the Catholic Lawyers’ Guild called Scalia a Catholic who was “uncompromising in his convictions and in his faith.”

“He sought to protect the constitutional rights of all citizens, including the unborn, and for his efforts we are forever grateful. He will be missed. May his soul rest in peace.”

Boston University School of Law Professor Jack Beermann first met Scalia in 1980 as a first-year student at the University of Chicago Law School, where Scalia was a professor.

“He was among the friendliest law professors we had,” said Beermann, who remembered that a group of students had rented Scalia’s house while he visited the University of Virginia Law School. They sometimes threw parties there, and wondered if Scalia had noticed.

Beermann brought it up in the late 1980s, when Scalia came to Boston University School of Law to be a moot court judge.

“He commented that they took good care of the house except that all the lights in the big room on the main floor had red or blue bulbs in them for the parties,” said Beermann.

Beermann said he’ll never forget Scalia’s influence in the area of statutory interpretation, where he insisted that it was illegitimate for courts to look beyond the language of a statute to find Congress’s intent.

“In particular, he refused to consider legislative history such as statements of individual members of Congress or even committee reports, which before his time on the court were very commonly consulted by the courts for help in understanding the meaning of a statute,” said Beermann.

Globe correspondent Alexandra Koktsidis contributed to this report. Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.