The dinner that Harvard Law School dean Elena Kagan hosted on Wednesday evening to honor the 20th anniversary of Justice Scalia’s appointment to the Supreme Court was a delightful event, far exceeding my hopeful expectations. In her own remarks honoring Justice Scalia, Dean Kagan was eloquent, warm-spirited, insightful, and very amusing. She presented Justice Scalia with a letter from Chief Justice Roberts congratulating him on reaching the “midpoint” (or some similar term) of his service on the Court. With wonderfully apt remarks, she also gave him, as a memento of the dinner (which featured salmon as the main course), the framed original of a humorous letter from the great Justice Joseph Story offering thanks for a gift of salmon. The celebratory remarks of professors Charles Fried, Laurence Tribe, and John Manning were likewise excellent.
I can’t do the dinner, or Dean Kagan, justice in this brief description, but suffice it to say, as he made clear in his own remarks, that Justice Scalia deeply appreciated the event.
As was apparent, and as some who know her well have confirmed to me, notwithstanding the significant jurisprudential differences that she undoubtedly has with Justice Scalia, Dean Kagan’s statements of admiration and appreciation for Justice Scalia were genuine, not ceremonial cant. Regrettably, some of her counterparts at major law schools fail even to extend Justice Scalia the basic minimum of civil hospitality, as this discussion of his recent treatment by Yale Law School dean Harold Koh indicates.
Dean Kagan’s liberality of spirit and her intellectual integrity have clearly revitalized Harvard Law School under her leadership. I don’t want to overstate the point—Harvard still has lots of problems that no one can quickly solve—but I don’t want to understate it either. What Dean Kagan has already accomplished is remarkable.
Frankly, I had to struggle to remember the name of the dean who presided over Harvard Law School during the dismal period (1982-1985) when I studied there. I doubt that I ever spoke a word to him, and I think that I rarely saw him. By contrast, Dean Kagan somehow manages to be ubiquitous—she even attended the Federalist Society party after the dinner—and the students, one conservative student told me, universally like and admire her.
Harvard Law School is on the right track. Yale Law School, under Dean Koh, appears not to be. Any prospective law student considering the two schools ought to examine the difference carefully.