Photograph by Clement Britt

Oyez, oyez

May 13, 2022

Back Then

We hereby look back on Nov. 19, 2010, when Antonin Scalia, an associate justice of the Supreme Court, visited the university as Orator in Residence.

By Matthew Dewald
‘Have I overloaded the schedule?’ Walsh wondered.

There was a room waiting at the Bottomley House for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia when he arrived from Washington, D.C. It was reserved as a sort of home base where he could retreat and relax, as necessary. The justice, then in his early 70s, had a long day planned.

Too long, worried Kevin Walsh, the former Scalia clerk and now Richmond Law professor who arranged the visit. The schedule called for Scalia to give two talks on campus, attend a campus reception hosted by the Federalist Society, and then head downtown for dinner and a Red Mass. Some of the stops included always-unpredictable Q&As; all promised innumerable hands to shake, photos to snap, and snippets of small talk to conjure.

“Have I overloaded the schedule?” Walsh wondered to himself as he waited to greet his former boss. The day ahead was easy to imagine as an exhausting ordeal.

“What was most remarkable was that he gained in energy as the day went on,” Walsh later said. “There was something in his personality. It was so convivial. He was someone who not only exuded energy and interest, but really drew that from the room, the students. And not just the people who agreed with him.”

One of those students was L. Margaret Harker, L’11, then president of the Federalist Society’s student chapter, which hosted a reception, “a pretty intimate setting, maybe 80–100 people,” she said. Two of them were her mom and dad, there to watch their daughter present him with a gift on behalf of the society.

The gift was unusual by design — Scalia surely gets lots of them, she reasoned, and she wanted hers to stand out — as was a story she had prepared to go with it.

The tale that she unfolded involved a boy’s eagerness to avoid hard times via “a silver ball of golden thread” given to him by an old woman. “If he wished time to pass quickly, he need only pull the thread and an hour would pass like a second,” Harker explained. And pull he did, at every moment of hardship, until he became an old man who had missed much of his life.

The lesson Harker drew was the importance of resisting the temptation to “grasp for happy outcomes while skipping over legal difficulties.” She then handed Scalia a gilded box containing a spool of golden thread, secure, she said, in the knowledge that he would never unspool it.

“I was nervous about how it was going to be received,” said Harker, now a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice. “He had a very warm smile, very sincere. He was clearly enjoying it.”

Scalia’s easy, gregarious warmth struck Harker throughout the Q&A that followed.

“Nothing was prepared, and he had no idea what would be asked,” she said. “He was very funny, very candid, very opinionated, and seemed to sincerely engage. It was a very natural conversation.”

The evening Red Mass was another gift-giving occasion. At this event, Walsh helped present a custom-made cap modeled on the one worn in a famous portrait of St. Thomas More, the namesake of the legal society hosting the event.

Walsh saw that hat on Justice Scalia’s head again a few years later, in press reports. The justice made a minor stir when he wore it to Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.