A truly exclusive Washington party: Antonin Scalia hosts justices to toast new Henry Friendly bio


Justice Antonin Scalia and NYU law professor Norm Dorsen, the author’s brother, at the book party for "Henry Friendly" at Scalia's McLean home last week. (Kenna Peusner-Dorsen)

You thought the White House Correspondents’ Dinner was exclusive? Ha!

Here’s exclusive: A book party with a couple dozen guests — including two-thirds of the Supreme Court — at Antonin Scalia’s home in McLean.

The legal elite (John Roberts, Stephen Breyer, Sam Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor, along with superlawyer Bob Bennett and top federal judges from D.C.) came together last week to celebrate the publication of “Henry Friendly,” a biography by David Dorsen. The guests stood around Scalia’s dining room table — laden with Maureen Scalia’s buffet of homemade hors d’oeuvres and her husband’s Italian cookies — to hear about the “greatest judge of his era.” And no, it’s understandable if you’ve never heard of him.

“Friendly was a brilliant, brilliant man, but not a terribly interesting one,” the author told the room. Even Friendly’s former law clerks and daughter advised Dorsen not to attempt a book. “What I ultimately concluded,” he said, “was that Henry Friendly was indeed a fascinating man, but in a rather dull sort of way.”

Dull, maybe, but such an influential legal mind that Scalia wanted to throw this party — and his colleagues wanted to be there. (Yes, the Supremes socialize with each other a lot more than you’d think.) Scalia and his wife personally greeted every guest. After speeches, the longest-serving sitting justice yelled “Eat! Eat!” and shooed everyone to the buffet.


Dorsen’s new book. (Balknap Harvard Books)

Friendly, who died in 1986, graduated from Harvard Law School in 1927 and spent three decades in private practice before becoming a judge on New York’s Second Circuit in 1959. His influence, especially on modern commercial and securities law, is unmatched.

But he never ascended to the Supreme Court and lacked the outsize personality that makes a juicy subject for a biographer. Dorsen, a trial lawyer with the Sedgwick firm in the District, spent six years working on the book because “it was appalling that someone that great could disappear from view when his contribution to law was so enormous.”

Aside from his opinions, Friendly mentored a number of future legals stars — including Roberts, who clerked for the judge in 1979 when he was 24 years old.

“He was a delight to work for,” said the chief justice. “He was a little bit shy, which I think most people would find surprising. He could be a lion on the bench, but in private he was soft-spoken and shy.”

There’s no one like Friendly today, he said: “He was the best judge of his generation, he founded one of the great New York law firms, he was one of the leading academics of this generation, he was general counsel for Pan Am. There no figure today who’s remotely comparable to that scope.”

Including most of the legal eagles hanging out in Scalia’s living room, sipping white wine and getting their free copies of the book personalized by the author.

“It doesn’t happen anymore,” Scalia said. “It’s one of the things I worry about. More and more, we’re creating a European court system where judges get promoted from a lower court to a higher court. I don’t think that’s a very good thing.” A New York City lawyer with 30 years in private practice, he sighed, would never choose to become a federal judge today. “The hit in compensation. . .” Scalia let out a laugh. “They couldn’t take it.”

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