Walter Dellinger: A scholar and a mensch

Associated Press

Walter Dellinger, who died last week, was celebrated as a great constitutional scholar, former dean of the Duke Law School, head of the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel, acting solicitor general of the United States, a legal giant.

He was so much more.

Walter never was a Supreme Court justice, Cabinet member or Senator. He was one of those special Washington figures who — by dint of his intellect, insights and persona — had more influence than many with loftier titles.

Walter brought a zest to every engagement, whether a constitutional controversy, a political debate or a basketball or baseball game. A white southerner growing up in the 1950s, he was a passionate champion of civil rights and the rule of law. There was an infectious joy to his passion.

He passed away suddenly last week, age 80, after a long bout with pulmonary fibrosis. His final chapter was the stuff of legends, which over the past year and a half included:

  • Spearheading, with his fellow former solicitors general Seth Waxman and Don Verrilli, the Three Amigos: the Biden legal team that thwarted Donald Trump’s effort to steal the 2020 election, winning every legal challenge. They prepared for months before the election, and it’s not certain that a lesser team would have prevailed.
  • Crafting the successful legal brief that enabled the Manhattan district attorney to have access to all of Trump’s financial records. 
  • Devastating the charge by right-wingers that President Biden’s commitment to choosing a Black woman for the Supreme Court was far narrower than Ronald Reagan’s promise to pick a woman for the high court in 1981. In a column this month, Walter showed that law schools and the legal profession opened up so much over the past four decades that the field of qualified Black women for the high court today is larger than that of all qualified women in 1981 when Reagan chose Sandra Day O’Connor.

No doubt the president consulted him on the selection of a nominee. I’m not sure of Walter’s preference, but he told me unequivocally that all three top choices are well qualified.

With news of his death Wednesday morning, Twitter was flooded with tributes about his professional and personal virtues: “generous,” “big hearted,” “a true mensch,” “the most original and creative thinker on matters of constitutional law.” High praise also came from conservative quarters, including former federal judge Michael Luttig and former Republican solicitor general Paul Clement.

Walter argued 24 cases before the Supreme Court, on a wide array of issues. His brief in the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case where the court ruled it was unconstitutional to criminalize sodomy, was especially compelling. He cited Mark Bingham, one of those brave 9/11 passengers of Flight 93 who stormed the cockpit of the hijacked plane heading to the Capitol: “To his country, Mr. Bingham is a hero,” Dellinger noted. “In Texas, he is a criminal.” Bingham was gay.

After graduating from Yale Law School in 1966, and before he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Walter taught at the University of Mississippi Law School. He invited a Black civil rights leader to address the class. One student said he couldn’t be in the same room; Walter told him to sit in the hall.

Walter loved to relate the experience there of his beloved wife Anne, an equal intellect, whom he tenderly cared for during her long illness. In Mississippi, she was pregnant and at the obstetrician’s office, which had “white” and “colored” waiting rooms. Her vital signs were sky high, and the doctor wanted to rush her to the emergency room. She expressed her outrage at the segregated waiting rooms. They retook her blood pressure, which returned to normal; the segregated waiting room signs came down.

Conversations with Walter were exhilarating, whether talking about the affairs of state or anticipating the next episode of HBO’s “Mare of Easttown” series, debating the virtues of his cherished UNC Tar Heels or his jubilation over the 2019 Washington Nationals winning the World Series.

He revered the Supreme Court. Yet he was deeply disturbed by the Republican conservative court’s retrenchment on civil rights, especially their gutting of the voting rights laws and what he considered “extraordinary contempt of Congress and of politics.”

He also was a master of the light touch. He admired Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, but — fearing he someday might be replaced by a conservative justice — suggested the White House offer Breyer Ambassador to France. The justice got word of this and asked Walter if he was trying “to ship me off to Paris?” Always quick on the uptake, Walter replied, “No sir. I hear the food isn’t as good as it used to be.”

For the past two years, during the pandemic, we’ve had a Zoom call every Sunday afternoon; it has grown to a dozen prominent types in the fields of law, journalism, politics, finance and entertainment. With his irrepressible charm and wide raging interests and expertise, Walter set the agenda for these conversations.

Jill Abramson noted that while the calls were remote, Walter “was such a vivid presence, I never felt any remoteness.” He and James Carville, who on the surface shared only a law degree and a high IQ, bonded weekly — the dean and the ‘Ragin Cajun,’ who says he learned something every time he talked to Walter.

Damn, was he fun. I doubt we’ll see his like again.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the spelling of Paul Clement’s last name.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Biden legal team Constitutional law constitutional scholar Donald Trump Joe Biden Jurists Lawrence v. Texas Solicitor General Stephen Breyer Supreme Court U.S. Department of Justice Walter Dellinger

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