Arthur Aidala: The most important lesson I learned from my friend Justice Scalia

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I wanted to share some poignant memories of Justice Antonin Scalia. During the summer after my second year of law school, I decided to take the non-traditional route and enrolled in a legal study program in Italy. I was familiar with the country and fluent in the language, 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 his septuagenarian aunts, Eva and Lenora, from the car and onto the path toward our villa in the outskirts of the historic city of Siena, overlooking the hills of Tuscany. Having been tasked with preparing the meal for our group, I was sporting an apron and covered in tomato sauce. But at that moment, what troubled me was that none of my classmates or professors were welcoming the Justice and his family to our feast. Though I was inappropriately attired, I alone approached the family and started the conversation to welcome them for their weeklong stay in Tuscany.

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

(Arthur Aidala, Justice Scalia and an unidentified friend. (Courtesy of the author))

In those first minutes alone with the man whose aunts were calling "Nino," I gushed about my father being an attorney and my maternal grandfather having been one in the 1930s, when there were very few Italian-American lawyers. We chatted about our shared Sicilian heritage and, as New Yorkers often do when they meet, we determined we were both New York Yankees fans.

I was just 23 years old and had completed my second year at the City University of New York School of Law; he was 55 years old and had 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. We clearly were in two totally different stratospheres in this universe, but one thing was certain: There was a palpable chemistry between us. 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.

Courtesy of the author

Courtesy of the author (Arthur Aidala and Justice Scalia)

After that magical week with the justice and his family in Italy, I would see him 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 time. As the years went on and he became the "celebrity" of the court, he remained the grounded and real New Yorker I had met years before in the hills of Tuscany.

He took his work very seriously, but he never took himself too seriously – at least not in my company. As busy as he was and despite all of the demands on his time, he never denied me the opportunity to bring friends and family to watch oral arguments from his private box in the well of the Court, and then to visit him afterward in his chambers. Sometimes the visit would be accompanied by a behind-the-scenes tour of the Supreme Court, given by the Justice himself, or by lunch, either in his chambers or at one of his favorite restaurants. At my request, he willingly accepted the Rapallo Award given by the Columbian Lawyers Association, 1st Judicial Department, and he accepted the role of keynote speaker at the National District Attorneys 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.”

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’re 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.