MINNEAPOLIS (KMSP) - It’s one of the most elite clubs in the United States: former Supreme Court clerk. And 15 years ago, Aaron Van Oort, joined the club as a law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia.
Van Oort, a partner at Faegre Baker Daniels, the state’s largest law firm, is one of two former Scalia clerks living in Minnesota. The other clerk is the Honorable Patrick Schiltz, a federal judge.
Van Oort sat down with Fox 9 to share his thoughts on Scalia, and the justice’s legacy.
Interviewing with Scalia
Van Oort interviewed with both Justice Scalia and Breyer, but with Scalia, and his clerks, first — leading to a funny exchange after a seemingly strong interview.
“He said, ya know Aaron, I don’t want to put you in an awkward spot. I know you’re going down to talk to Justice Breyer, but here’s what I want you to do. When you’re done talking to him, I want you to come back down here and talk to me… [I]f you have an offer from him, you have an offer from me.”
Justice Scalia outside of court
“You see how sharp his opinions are, and you think, that guy might be kind of intimidating. Quite the opposite in interpersonal matters. He’s the one who makes everyone in the room feel welcome,” Van Oort said. “He’s an incredibly warm, engaging, charismatic guy. You’re immediately comfortable when you walk in. He’s a raconteur, he loves telling stories. Loves to tell jokes. All of these things.”
But talk law, and, Van Oort told Fox 9, the sharp Scalia known by the public, came into view. “Now, when you switch to talking about law, he is a fiery Italian guy. The way he figures things out is by debating them. He debates them in his opinions, he debates in person. You see him at oral argument, and when you’re there, you better show up ready to argue. Because the way he figures things out by debating them,” Van Oort said.
A clerkship with Scalia: Debating and writing — and re-writing
Van Oort said his favorite part of the clerkship was debating with Scalia, who debated every case with his four clerks before voting with the justices. “It sort of opened it up for intellectual, bare knuckle brawling. And we’d fight it out, and see who could justify what the result was. That was a very favorite part of that whole thing,” he said.
Scalia, once a law professor, enjoyed teaching his clerks, both through debate and writing — spending up to eight hours going over an opinion’s draft with a clerk. “We’d print out two copies of the opinion, double spaced, get all of the authorities we cited in there, flag the pages, put them on carts, wheel them into his chambers. And then you’d sit down, and go through, word by word, line by line, authority by authority, in the entire opinion. And he would make us defend every word, every choice of word. Is this the right word? Is this the right idea? Is there a better one? Can we get a better one, can we get more precise, can we explain it better?” Van Oort said.
Scalia’s method of analyzing cases, often referred to as originalism, is not without critics. “His clear view of things was that the law is what it was understood to be at the time it was passed, or what a reasonable person in that position would have understood it to be, because not every question was anticipated,” Van Oort said. “Everything now starts with text. It is the first thing you address, and if it’s clear, it’s the last thing you address. And no matter where the judge is on the political spectrum, everybody gets that. And so that renewed authority, where it comes from, is one of his real legacies.”
Van Oort sums up the Scalia legacy succinctly, saying, “I think the law is clearer and more predictable because of Justice Scalia.”
Learning of Scalia’s death
Justice Scalia had a reunion for his more than a 130 clerks every year. Van Oort got the notice of this year’s reunion on the day Scalia’s death was announced.
“One of the sad ironies of when he passed away is [Saturday] morning, around eleven o’clock central time, the save the date came out for this year’s Scalia reunion. And within a few hours of that coming out, we all started hearing the news he had died. It was just bitter to get that timing,” Van Oort said.