Antonin Scalia law school dedicated in Virginia

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Antonin Scalia's death last February shocked the close knit court leaving it short handed

Elena Kagan recounted that when she was dean of Harvard Law how Scalia would visit the school

Arlington, Virginia CNN  — 

Justice Elena Kagan and other members of the Supreme Court traveled Thursday to Virginia to celebrate the legacy of – and name a law school after – Justice Antonin Scalia, who Kagan called “one of the most important Supreme Court justices ever, and also one of the greatest.”

He also, she joked, had the unique ability to “grab hold of students, shake them and turn them upside down” with his provocative opinions.

Kagan’s comments came before an audience of legal luminaries attending the dedication of the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University.

Scalia’s death last February shocked the close-knit court leaving it short handed and caught in the middle of a ferocious debate as Senate Republicans refused to hold hearings for President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland.

But it was Scalia’s legacy that was front and center at the dedication ceremony.

On the cover of the program was a quote from Scalia, “I am something of a contrarian, I suppose” it said. “I feel less comfortable when everybody agrees with me.”

Kagan recounted that when she was dean of Harvard Law, Scalia would visit the school. He told her at the time, “I go to law schools just to make trouble.” He admitted that it would take “several weeks” for the students’ professors “to put them back on track.”

Nodding to their ideological differences, she insisted that his method of constitutional interpretation changed “our legal culture” and the way lawyers, law students and judges think. In his life, Scalia passionately defended a view of interpreting the Constitution and the laws based on their text and original meaning. He also persuaded others not to rely upon legislative history when interpreting a statute.

Five other justices were in the audience Thursday, only Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were missing. Judge Sri Srinivasan of the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, who was on the short list of Obama’s list to replace Scalia, sat near the front as well as former solicitors general Ted Olson and Paul Clement.

Several members of the Scalia family were in the audience including his son Father Paul Scalia, who gave the invocation. Catherine Scalia Courtney, one of Scalia’s nine children, spoke in honor for her father who she called the “son of a professor and a school teacher” who would, be “honored” to have the school dedicated in his honor.

Koch Foundation donation

The naming of the law school was made possible with a $10,000,000 gift from the Charles Koch Foundation and another gift of $20,000,000 from an anonymous donor. Neither Charles or David Koch were in the audience although a representative from the foundation was present.

The large gift and the renaming of the school did not come without controversy.

In a letter last spring to students and alumni Henry N. Butler, the Dean of the law school announced the gift, the largest the university had ever received and said it would be used in part to increase class size, improve diversity and hire new faculty.

In his letter, Butler acknowledged that the announcement took some at the school off guard and that he received many comments – some of them “very negative (almost all respectful)”.

Although critics expressed concern that the law school would be linked with the conservative politics of the Koch Foundation, Butler said “the law school has complete independence from the donors regarding the use of the funds within the delineated categories of scholarships, faculty and research.”

Last April, a group of faculty and staff at the university – not the law school – released a letter repudiating some of Scalia’s opinions on gay rights and affirmative action and arguing that the renaming of the law school “undermines our mission as a public university and tarnishes our reputation.”

The signed letter said that “the views Scalia affirmed from the bench do not reflect the values of our campus community.”

In his letter, Butler also made reference to the fact that the school was initially named the “Antonin Scalia School of Law” until “an “acronym controversy” arose on social media. Butler called “The Antonin Scalia Law School” a “logical substitute.”