Thursday, August 10, 2006

Antonin Scalia and the Case of the Albemarle Pippins

In the fall of 1977, I entered the University of Chicago Law School. My first-year professors were an illustrious group. Among them was Richard Posner, one of the seminal thinkers in the field of law and economics and presently Judge of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. He taught us Torts. Our Jurisprudence professor was Edward Levi, previously President of the University, who in the fall of 1977 had just returned from serving as Gerald Ford’s Attorney General.

For Contracts, we had a newcomer—Antonin Scalia. Professor Scalia had arrived at Chicago fresh from the U.S. Department of Justice, where he had been Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel.

As a first-year law student, I was intimidated by almost everything about law school, particularly the Socratic method, but Scalia brought a sense of lightness and humor to the classroom—at first. In those early days, as my classmates and I struggled to master legal concepts and terminology, Scalia seemed intent on making Contracts fun, or at least comprehensible. He was an energetic teacher and anxious to succeed, just as we were, so we viewed him sympathetically.

He particularly won our hearts with his hypotheticals, the imagined situations he used to illuminate legal concepts or test our nascent legal reasoning skills. Hypotheticals are a mainstay of legal teaching, and during the first month or so of class, Scalia employed a series of hypotheticals concerning apples, Albemarle Pippin apples, to be exact. He wove hypothetical tales of agreements to buy and sell Pippins and used Pippins to illustrate fundamental ideas like “consideration” and “bargain.”

His choice of the humble apple for his hypotheticals seemed a brilliant stroke. What better way to introduce students to legal complexities than through easily understood examples involving apples? As it happens, Albemarle Pippins are no ordinary apples. Brought to Virginia by George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, they became favorites of Thomas Jefferson. Perhaps in choosing the Albemarle Pippin as his hypothetical apple, Scalia even then pictured himself among the shapers of American history.

We students, on the other hand, were hoping merely to make the grade. At the University of Chicago, as at other law schools, no exams were given until the end of the first term. Until then, no one really knew where they stood or even whether they would survive the first year. That made for a lot of tension, which students traditionally relieved by devising clever pranks to amuse their classmates. For a few of my fellow students, Scalia, along with his Albemarle Pippins, made an irresistible target.

As I sat in Contracts class one morning, hoping I wouldn't be called on to analyze the assigned case, there was a pounding on the door. One of the students sitting nearby jumped up and opened it. A tall young woman, whom I recognized as a second-year student, entered the room. Her blond hair was done in braids and she wore farmer's overalls and a red-checked shirt. To complete the outfit, she sported a hayseed between her teeth.

“Antonin Scalia?” she asked in a convincing down-home drawl. “We got yer shipment for ya. C’mon boys, bring’em in.” Scalia looked understandably confused.

In came apples, bushels of them, pushed, pulled, and carried by several upperclassmen also dressed as farmers. “These here are yer Albemarle Pippins,” one of them intoned, as the class exploded with laughter. Scalia smiled bemusedly. For a few minutes we enjoyed the pleasant delirium of group participation in a shared joke.

Then Scalia stopped to smiling. He didn’t merely stop—his entire demeanor changed. Perhaps he suddenly felt we were laughing at him, not with him. That perception couldn’t have been further from the truth, but it might explain the transformation that took place. One moment, Scalia was the jovial teacher, sure of his abilities and secure in the admiration of his students. In an instant, his entire affect changed. “That’s enough,” he said angrily, dismissing the farmer actors. Our laughter died down in a hurry as we returned to the case at hand.

Ironically, my classmates chose Scalia as the object of their prank (and persuaded several second-year students to take part) precisely because we all liked him so much. In the days and weeks that followed, however, Scalia never recovered his prior avuncular manner, preferring instead to grill students harshly about legal issues. No more cheerful repartee in class, and definitely no more hypotheticals involving Albemarle Pippins.

The following year, a friend of mine took an upper level course with Professor Scalia. She reported that he’d regained his equilibrium and once again displayed a spirited and brilliant teaching style. The succeeding years seem to have reinforced his renewed sense of confidence. Nowadays, whatever one may think of Justice Scalia’s legal philosophy, he certainly comes across as self-assured. But, reflecting on the thin-skinned response he had in the case of the Albemarle Pippins, I can’t help but wonder how that aspect of his personality influences the decisions he makes today.