The U.S. Supreme Court returned to the bench Monday for the first time since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, with his empty chair, draped in black, standing as a stark reminder of his absence after a nearly 30-year tenure.
In a businesslike tribute at the beginning of the court’s session, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. said, “He was our man for all seasons, and we will miss him beyond measure.” Roberts also praised Scalia’s “irrepressible spirit” and his role as a father of nine children with his wife Maureen. (Read Roberts’ full statement here.)
Scalia’s draped chair will remain behind the court’s bench for 30 days following his death Feb. 13, which means that when the next argument cycle begins on March 21 it will be gone, and the associate justices will be in a new seating arrangement according to seniority.
Members of the public and the Supreme Court bar crowded the somber court chamber Monday on what otherwise would have been a routine argument session.
Among the spectators was a large contingent from the U.S. solicitor general’s office as well as advocates including Williams & Connolly partner Kannon Shanmugam, and William Jay of Goodwin Procter, both former Scalia law clerks. Shanmugam tweeted earlier that “It feels important to be there today.”
Roberts briefly recounted Scalia’s life story, including his years in private practice in Cleveland, though he did not mention the name of the firm, now known as Jones Day.
He also noted that Scalia argued one case before the court in 1976 and won, “establishing a perfect record before the court.” The case, which Roberts also did not name, was Alfred Dunhill of London v. Cuba, a dispute between cigar importers and Cuba over money tied up by the Cuban nationalization of the tobacco industry. Representing the United States as amicus curiae, Scalia was on the winning side in a 5-4 decision.
Roberts also told the audience that Scalia wrote 292 majority opinions during his tenure, and “was also known on occasion to dissent.” That drew laughter and lightened the mood. Scalia was famous for his angry dissents, which he once said were more fun to write than majority opinions.
Soon, Roberts’ tribute was over, and it was time for the justices’ routines to resume: swearing in new members of the court bar and hearing arguments in two cases. “Now we turn to the business of the court,” Roberts said.