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A tribute to Justice Antonin Scalia

February 25, 2016 By Arthur L. Aidala, Esq. Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Photos courtesy of Arthur Aidala
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I wanted to share some poignant memories of Justice Antonin Scalia. During the summer after the second year of law school, I decided to take the non-traditional route and enroll in a legal study abroad program. It was one located in Italy, a country I was familiar with and a language I was fluent in and there would be a special guest lecturer for the final week of the four-week program. The first three weeks were quite memorable, but it was during the fourth week that a life altering encounter took place.

I watched from the kitchen window as Justice Antonin Scalia exited his white Italian rental car. I observed him assisting his wife Maureen and two septuagenarian aunts, Eva and Lenora, from the auto and onto the path toward our villa overlooking the hills of Tuscany in the outskirts of the historic city of Siena. Having been tasked to prepare the meal for our entire group, I was sporting an apron and covered in tomato sauce. But at that moment, what was troubling to me was that none of my classmates or professors were approaching the justice to greet him and his family to welcome them to our feast. Although inappropriately attired, I alone approached the family and started the conversation to welcome them for their week-long stay in Tuscany.

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This brilliant and powerful jurist wasted no time finding his way to the tiny kitchen in which I was cooking, ripped off a piece of the unsalted Tuscan bread and submerged it in my sauce. Waiting for his reaction was comparable to the anticipation of a foreperson reading a jury’s verdict. Upon his rather vocal approval, his next order of business was to determine where the Chianti was to wash down the Italian delicacies laying on the table before him.

In those first minutes alone with the man whose aunts were referring to him as “Nino,” I gushed with pride about my father being an attorney and my maternal grandfather having done so in the 1930s when there were very, very few Italian-American lawyers. We chatted about our shared Sicilian heritage and, as many New Yorkers often do upon first meeting, we cleared the air and determined we were both New York Yankees fans. I was just 23 years old and had completed my second year of school at the City University of New York School of Law; he was 55 years old and just completed his fifth term as an associate justice on our nation’s highest court. He was also the most prestigious Italian-American individual this country had ever seen. As clear as it was that we were in two totally different stratospheres in this universe, one thing was certain — there was chemistry between us that was palpable. What I could not realize 25 years ago, was what a significant role Justice Scalia would play as a mentor, a role model and a friend, not only in the law, but even more so in life.

After that magical week with the justice and his family in Italy, I would see him only two or three times a year. Yet whenever I had quality time alone with him, I walked away with another life lesson that I hold close to my heart to this day. He was very kind to me and very generous with his advice and his time. As the years went on and he became the “celebrity” of the court, he stayed the grounded and real New Yorker I met years before in the hills of Tuscany. He took his work very seriously, but I never found that he took himself too seriously, at least not in my company. As busy as he was and despite all of the demands on his time, the justice never once denied me the opportunity to bring friends and family to watch oral arguments in his private box in the well of the court and then accommodate us with a visit to his chambers. Sometimes the visit would be accompanied by a behind the scenes tour of the Supreme Court given by the justice himself, or lunch, either in his chambers or at one of his favorite D.C. restaurants. At my request, he willingly accepted the Rapallo Award given by the Columbian Lawyers Association, 151 Judicial Department, and accepted the role as the keynote speaker at the National District Attorney’s lunch. Most recently, he participated in a forum at the Brooklyn Bar Association so that, in his words, he could “Make you look ‘presidential’ even before you are president of the organization.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer described him as a “legal titan”; Chief Justice John Roberts “a treasured colleague”; and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said “he was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit.”

Over the past 25 years, he was a man I loved and respected so much

I was forever fearful of disappointing him. He was kind, generous and sensitive to others’ troubles, yet demanding, and at times, unyielding. He loved to have discussions that to others may have looked like arguments, but we both had smiles on our faces the entire time. I did not agree with some of his decisions, but he encouraged the debate over them after their release. If I continued to question him about them, he reminded me of the monumental decisions he had sided with that aided the criminal bar.

Of the many lessons I learned from the justice, (always lead with your strongest argument to a judge, only wear a navy or dark gray suit to the court, have dinner with your family as often as possible, you can never be over prepared when you enter a courtroom) the overarching theme of all of his words of wisdom was if you were going to do something, DO IT RIGHT! Do it the way it is supposed to be done and strive for 100 percent.

He followed the same mantra in the courtroom and in his written opinions. And it was that same philosophy that brought him joy in his pursuit of opera, religion, hunting, food and wine. As I deeply mourn his loss, I find comfort in the fact that whenever tempted to take a shortcut, whether in the law or in life, I will have my “Uncle” Nino on my shoulder barking, “Do it the right way or don’t do it at all!”

Overall, he was so much fun to spend time with; simply put, he was a very cool guy. I have had the privilege of meeting dozens of notable individuals in the course of my career. I cannot imagine any of them filling the void Justice Scalia has left in my life.

Your Honor, I will look at my diploma citing my admission to your court with you as my sponsor with pride in my heart and soul. Thank you for your service to our country, your unwavering loyalty to our Constitution and for everything you have taught me to make me be a better lawyer and a better man.

You will be missed.

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Arthur Aidala, Esq. is currently President of the Brooklyn Bar Association, Managing Partner of Aidala, Bertuna & Kamins, P.C., and a long-time legal analyst at FOX News.

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