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‘One of the most important Supreme Court Justices ever’: Justices, academics dedicate Scalia Law School

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, left, Clarence Thomas, center, and Stephen G. Breyer, right, listen as Justice Elena Kagan speaks at the dedication of the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University on Oct. 6, 2016 in Arlington, Va. To the right of Thomas is his wife, Virginia. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The public knew him as a leader on the conservative wing of the Supreme Court whose sharp-edged legal opinions for decades helped frame the nation’s social and political debates. But in the world of academia, Justice Antonin Scalia also was known as a jurist who loved to drop by law schools.

Justice Elena Kagan recalled her late colleague’s passion for these visits Thursday at the dedication of the newly renamed Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. Kagan, one of six justices from the high court at the event in Arlington, Va., said Scalia relished connecting with students because it gave him a forum to talk about ideas. She saw this firsthand when she served as dean of Harvard Law School.

“I had the good fortune to host the justice several times,” Kagan said, “and those days were among the most fun I ever had as dean.” Kagan said Scalia displayed “his brilliance, his wit, his good cheer, and, well, let’s say his confidence in the manifest rightness of all his opinions.”

Kagan, whose opinions on the court frequently were opposed to Scalia’s, nonetheless made clear her admiration for the late justice, who died in February.

“He’ll go down in history as one of the most important Supreme Court justices ever, and also one of the greatest,” Kagan said, noting that it was a “great, great thing” that the law school was named for him.

The dedication came six months after George Mason announced that it would rename its law school for Scalia, an action controversial in some quarters. The renaming coincided with $30 million in combined gifts to support the school — $20 million from an anonymous donor and $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation. The Koch family is well known for its support of conservative political causes.

It’s official: George Mason’s law school is named in honor of Antonin Scalia

Skeptics, including some of George Mason’s faculty and students, said the gift and the renaming showed that donors were wielding undue influence over Virginia’s largest public university. Protesters displayed a banner on a sidewalk along Fairfax Drive, outside the law school, Thursday morning as people gathered for the dedication. “Protect Public Ed Not Private Interests,” it said.

“Our concerns have been ignored by the leadership of George Mason University,” one of the demonstrators, sophomore Janine Gaspari, said.

Speaking at the event inside the school, George Mason President Angel Cabrera said he remains convinced that the 34,000-student university did the right thing. “Absolutely no concerns,” Cabrera said. He said that a public university must be committed to “diversity of ideas,” a principle for which Scalia stood. “I am very, very proud that the name of Justice Scalia will forever be associated with this wonderful law school,” he said.

Are conservative donors bullying this public university? Its president says no.

Looming above the speakers in the Hazel Hall Atrium was a giant portrait of Scalia accompanied by one of the justice’s quotations: “I am something of a contrarian, I suppose. I feel less comfortable when everybody agrees with me. I say, ‘I better reexamine my position.’ ”

Members of the Scalia family were in attendance, including the late justice’s wife of more than 50 years, Maureen Scalia. The Rev. Paul Scalia, one of his sons, gave the invocation. Catherine Scalia Courtney, another speaker, who works as an administrative assistant and academic adviser at Mason’s engineering school, said her father would been honored to have a public law school named for him. The chief justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, Donald W. Lemons, recalled first seeing the future U.S. Supreme Court justice years ago when Scalia was a law professor at the University of Virginia. Lemons, then a law student, noticed Scalia walking at “a decidedly brisk pace.” He added: “I remember thinking even then, this is a man who’s on a mission.”

Also in the audience Thursday were Supreme Court justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor.

How the other justices remember Antonin Scalia

George Mason’s new association with Scalia has drawn unprecedented attention to the 600-student law school. U.S. News and World Report ranks the law school 45th in the nation, tied with counterparts at Southern Methodist University and the University of Utah, and just ahead of schools at the universities of Florida and Maryland.

During his lifetime, Scalia was no stranger to the school. Faculty said he was known for stopping by, and he spoke at the dedication of the law school’s main building in 1999. Now the school hopes to build on its new name. David K. Rehr, a senior associate dean, said demand for the school appears to be rising.

“We’re getting more people wanting to come here, and we’re raising our standards,” he said.