Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in February. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

As soon as George Mason University leaders announced Thursday that they plan to rename the law school after the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, people began to debate the idea.

A Virginia House delegate almost immediately launched a petition asking for more input from students and alumni and asking to send a message to the the university’s president, the governor and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, which must vote on the name.

At the same time, many were welcoming the change — and the scholarships made possible by the $30 million in gifts benefiting the law school.

Scalia, who died Feb. 13, was a polarizing figure — beloved by conservatives, derided by liberals — who loved the challenge of a debate himself.

Here, the dean and a professor at the school make the case for the name change. Henry N. Butler is dean and professor of law at The Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University. Neomi Rao is an associate professor of law and director of the Center for the Study of the Administrative State.

— Susan Svrluga

Dean Henry N. Butler, The Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University. (Photo courtesy of George Mason University GMU law school dean Henry N. Butler (Courtesy of George Mason University)

Memorializing the Justice’s legacy at George Mason University

By Henry N. Butler & Neomi Rao

Justice Scalia embodied the highest standards of legal education as a jurist and scholar. During his remarkable legal career, Justice Scalia changed the way that judges, lawyers, and law students view the nature of the law.

In a legal culture rife with legal realism — the belief that the law is what the judge ate for breakfast — Justice Scalia restored the study of law as law.

It is a fitting honor that his name will now grace the George Mason School of Law, memorializing the Justice’s legacy at an institution committed to rigorous legal inquiry.

According to some judges and law professors, the laws and the Constitution serve as only an inkblot for public values, norms, and the promotion of justice. By contrast, Justice Scalia championed the idea that judges must strive to serve as faithful interpreters of the actual law.

When interpreting a statute, he looked to the fair meaning of its words, not the intentions of congressmen. When interpreting the Constitution he sought to ascertain its original meaning, rather than grasp at its penumbras.

Justice Scalia advocated not for any partisan cause, but for the rule of law, emphasizing both the responsibilities and limitations of the judge in a constitutional democracy.

In the wake of his passing, much has been written about how Justice Scalia brought about a sea change in interpretation. For example in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court in an opinion by Justice Scalia held that the Second Amendment protects the individual’s right to possess a firearm. Justice Stevens strongly dissented, but both opinions relied heavily on the original meaning of “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.”

Justice Scalia’s judicial opinions, speeches, and books conveyed not only his sharp intellect, but also his high spirit. He was not afraid to question the conventional wisdom, to offer the lone dissent, to label his colleagues’ opinions as “interpretive jiggery-pokery.”

Like Justice Scalia, Mason Law has a maverick streak.

Neomi Rao, Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Center for the Study of the Administrative State at The Antonin Scalia School of Law at George Mason University. (Photo courtesy of George Mason University) Neomi Rao, director of the Center for the Study of the Administrative State at GMU. (Courtesy of George Mason University)

Scholars at Mason were instrumental in developing the study of law and economics, which went from upstart to mainstream in short order. Today the Law School continues this tradition, with a commitment to economics, the social sciences, and the foundational study of constitutional and administrative law.

In 1999, Justice Scalia officially dedicated the current Mason Law School building. In his address he exhorted faculty and students to stay committed to the academics of law. He emphasized to professors the importance of teaching and told students to “study the entire body of law” rather than focus only on practical applications.

In a struggling legal marketplace, such advice might be difficult to follow. Yet Justice Scalia recognized an important truth that good lawyers must be educated beyond the basics. They must have a solid foundation of critical inquiry in order to pursue their profession with distinction and honor and to assume positions of leadership in private practice and public service.

Justice Scalia’s commitment to a deeper understanding of law remains an important part of his legacy and a focus for the ongoing work of the Antonin Scalia School of Law.