Jurisprudence

What Made Walter Dellinger a Brilliant Lawyer Also Made Him a Great Man

Friends and colleagues remember a giant of the law.

Walter Dellinger.
Walter Dellinger at the U.S. Capitol in 2014. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

On Wednesday, Walter E. Dellinger III—former acting solicitor general, noted constitutional scholar, and Supreme Court advocate—died at the age of 80. A giant of the law, Walter defended a vision of the Constitution that strengthened democracy, safeguarded individual rights, and protected minorities from discrimination. He was a brilliant man but also a thoroughly decent one, treasuring his countless hours of mentorship with several generations of lawyers, including a huge number of women and people of color. A teacher both in and out of the classroom, he never stopped educating his students, friends, colleagues, and everyone else lucky enough to know him.

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In tribute to Walter, we have collected remembrances from some of those friends and colleagues. They are a testament to his warmth and good humor, his ceaseless intellectual curiosity, and his urgent pursuit of justice. These voices cross the ideological and political spectrum, but they all attest to the fundamental decency of our dear friend.

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Robert Bauer, former White House counsel

A terrible loss for all of us, for anyone who cared about law and social justice and basic decency in our civic affairs. I came to know Walter well during the 2020 election, when he was a member of the Biden campaign “SG3” litigation leadership, along with Don Verrilli and Seth Waxman, and he was indispensable in guiding the effort to plan for and defend against attacks on the electoral process and to ensure that the popular vote winner in 2020 became the president in 2021. And I was then privileged to work with him on the Presidential Commission on the Supreme Court of the United States, and there, too, he made the sort of extraordinary contribution typical of his accomplishments over his whole career in public life.

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Walter brought insight, deep learning, excellent judgment, and keen wit to his life in the law and government—all of which wrapped up together and properly labeled is rightly described as “wisdom.” Walter was wise, and he was as decent, fair-minded, and committed to the highest ideals of his profession and our democracy as anybody can imagine or hope for.

I once told Walter that one of my great regrets was not having had the chance to meet him years earlier than I did so I could have had the chance to  work with him, and enjoy his friendship, for even longer. That I eventually did have this opportunity is something for which I will always be so very grateful.

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Lawrence G. Baxter, Duke University School of Law

While I was teaching in Australia, Walter’s victory in the Supreme Court was graciously conveyed to him through a phone call from John Roberts, then in the Office of the Solicitor General. I was undeservedly surprised by a fax brought breathlessly through to my classroom by the Australian dean’s secretary. Instead of the fax stating, as it should have, that Walter had won the case, it said, “Please tell Professor Baxter that he won his case in the Supreme Court.” Nothing more. Much as I tried to provide the proper context, I was lionized by the whole law school, students and faculty alike. The more I tried to disclaim the credit, the more the law school thought I was a modest hero. The credit to me was entirely undeserved, but it is indicative of Walter’s generous heart, that he would want others to receive credit first. He knew it would make me look like a celebrity.

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What a special, special privilege to have been able to count Walter as one of my dearest and most beloved friends. His memories are among the most important I will ever have and I will always love and miss him.

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Paul Clement, former U.S. solicitor general

Walter was a great friend and a wonderful across-the-aisle mentor—something that is becoming too rare these days. I vividly recall when I first met him, in a moot court session fittingly enough, back before I joined the SG’s office. He not only welcomed my somewhat different take on the case but took the trouble to call me afterward and thank me. At the beginning of the Bush administration, he encouraged me to work at the Justice Department. He offered to do anything he could to help me—in true Walter fashion, he said, “I will publicly support you or publicly oppose you, whichever will help you more.” He shared great insights (and stories) about working at the Justice Department.

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We have remained friends since those early days, despite (or maybe even because of) being on the opposite side of the v. in some big cases. We did not always agree, but Walter was never disagreeable. He tackled every issue with the enthusiasm of someone deeply in love with and engaged in the law. One of the last times I saw him, he agreed to “Zoom in” to a law school class I co-teach. He told so many great stories, some self-deprecating, some laugh-out-loud funny, and all memorable. He will be greatly missed.

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Doriane Coleman, Duke University School of Law

Walter was my colleague at Duke Law School. He and his wife, Anne, were also dear friends. I’m sure the professional memories will come pouring in, so I’ll add this personal one.

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Our oldest son, then about 2 years old, was often in Walter’s arms as he paced the house talking law, politics, music, and sports. At the time, Alexander had a blanket that, if misplaced, would relegate the adults to desperate scavengers. One day, Walter handed me Alexander and one-quarter of the blanket. “The other three pieces are over there,” he said, pointing to the table. “Problem solved.”

James E. Coleman, Duke University School of Law

Walter recruited me to leave my law firm in D.C. in 1991 and come to Durham, North Carolina, to teach at Duke University. Over the years, my wife, Doriane, who is also on the Duke faculty, and I spent many hours with Walter and Anne as friends. Walter was a brilliant historian and constitutional law professor, but one with extraordinary political instincts and empathy. This made him unique—a unicorn—as a friend described him today.

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At heart, Walter was a storyteller and he was very funny. An evening with Walter was an intellectual feast. He talked about the Constitution and politics with the same passion and insight   as he discussed Dean Smith and UNC basketball. In the early ’90s, when I came to Duke, we had an informal running group. We called ourselves the Clydesdales, for obvious reasons. On our weekly runs, Walter would regale us with stories about political intrigue in Washington or recapping the latest Carolina basketball victory. But when we came to the top of a steep hill on our regular course, Walter would break from the rest of us plodders and barrel down the hill, incanting, “Gravity is our friend!” That is how he lived his life, moving freely downhill and enjoying every minute. We will miss him.

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Hampton Dellinger, Walter’s son, assistant attorney general for legal policy

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Walter lived the life of the mind like no one I’ve ever known. And nothing excited him more intellectually than his writings for Slate. He first came to Slate as a reader, told his wide circle it was must consumption, and circulated (and quoted) its articles widely. Thanks to Dahlia Lithwick, whom he deeply admired, he became a contributor. For years, as the end of the Supreme Court’s term approached, he would grow equal parts apprehensive about how the decisions would turn out and excited about being able to comment on them for Slate. I grew excited as well.

He and I and my brother Drew were exceptionally close. And still I learned so many things about his life and his thoughts through his work for Slate. His ability to explain and expound upon the Supreme Court in plainspoken brilliance was extraordinary. His optimism, his patriotism, his belief in the power and goodness of the law shines through the multitude of bright passages he wrote. And yet until his last day, he was clear-minded and deeply concerned about the increasing domestic perils facing the America he loved to call home.

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He had few material wants. Instead, his deepest passions were his family and friends, the law, policy and politics, sports, and music. But above all, I think he cherished the rule of law and American democracy. The most fitting tribute for him that I can think of is for us all to do everything we can to sustain them both.

Dawn Johnsen, acting assistant attorney general for the Office of Legal Counsel

Walter’s passion for life, justice, and the law extended to innumerable issues and causes. I think especially of a day 35 years ago when he called to ask, “How are we going to save Roe v. Wade?”  Walter brought to his work on reproductive rights, and to everything he touched, an extraordinary empathy, a focus on protecting and lifting up everyone. Walter and his wife, Anne, did so much to improve the lives of others and to move our country closer to its promise.

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Pam Karlan, co-director of the Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice

In 2006, Walter scribbled a note to me on the back of a chart of the Supreme Court’s schedule that began “Vernon Jordan once told me that his Uncle Henry told him, ‘Vernon, if God ever made anything better than _____, He kept it for Himself.’ ” I’ve kept that note in my treasure box ever since. The note captured so much of what made Walter so special. He knew everyone. He was a great storyteller. He was generous in his praise and support of younger lawyers. If God ever made a better constitutional lawyer than Walter, he kept that person for Himself.

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Ron Klain, White House chief of staff

Walter was a giant in the law who never made others feel small in his presence. I was blessed to have him as a colleague, a friend, a mentor, and a law partner. When we would brainstorm about a legal issue he almost always had the best insights, but if he didn’t, he was quick to accept a superior view. He was a down to earth genius who never forgot where he came from or who he thought the law should serve.

Dahlia Lithwick, staff writer at Slate

I have a thousand stories about Walter dropping everything to perform some random favor, from helping choose a playlist for my wedding, to trying to get my husband and I to move to Chapel Hill in 2000, to giving a group of auction winners an insider tour of the Supreme Court during which he regaled them with tales of losing the Paula Jones lawsuit 9–0 at the Supreme Court (it’s an amazing story). But the thing I am hanging onto today is the tower of books he read aloud to his beloved wife, Anne, as her dementia progressed in the years before she died in 2021. He was working madly on election integrity, on his own book chapters, on a thousand ideas and columns, but he’d call to tell me what books he was reading aloud to her, and how much she loved them.

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Theirs was, as our friend professor Garrett Epps always says, a love story for the ages. The only thing that gives me solace today, as I reflect on the loss everyone is feeling, across professional and political and ideological lines, is how much he loved her, and that they are together reading great books, in a better place.

J. Michael Luttig, former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit

Walter Dellinger was one of the warmest, most sincere, earnest, and wonderful human beings I have ever had the privilege to know. He had a penetrating, piercing legal mind, and knew no rival in the legal world for over four decades. A model for all, he wore his brilliance with endearing modesty. A spectacular lawyer and counselor, Walter was a dear friend, from the time of our respective tenures in DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, to today. The country has lost a legal giant. I am saddened beyond words to hear the news of Walter’s passing.

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Mark Joseph Stern, staff writer at Slate

I had the honor of participating in the Breakfast Table with Walter in addition to seeing him on the legal conference circuit. As a writer, Walter was a wonder: snappy, bracing, deeply moral, intellectually unimpeachable. It was intimidating to match wits with him at the Breakfast Table, but he made it almost criminally fun to chat about the highs and lows of each term.

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I’d like to share one vivid memory I have of Walter at an American Constitution Society student convention at Duke in 2017. On our panel, he read a passage from an amicus brief that he co-authored in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court case that invalidated anti-sodomy laws. Walter was justly proud of that brief—especially the part explaining the many contributions that gay people have made to American society. Among others, the brief highlighted Mark Bingham, who fought terrorists on Flight 93. (“To his country, Mr. Bingham is a hero; in Texas, he is a criminal.”) Walter read this passage aloud to the conference:

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There is nothing about gay men and women in America that justifies treating them as criminally deviant under laws like Texas’ Homosexual Conduct Law. Gay men and lesbians are partners and parents, neighbors and co-workers, occasional heroes.

The room was silent, and few eyes were dry.

Walter was not just an occasional hero. He spent a lifetime scorning bigotry as not only immoral but irrational and un-American. The world is poorer for his absence.

David Tatel, judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

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Walter Dellinger was one of our nation’s greatest lawyers, not just because of his formidable legal skills, but because he devoted so much of his talent and energy to defending those in our society who are most vulnerable. Walter represented the very best of the American legal system.

Donald Verrilli, former solicitor general

Walter’s generosity of spirit was an incomparable blessing. He could not have been more devoted to—or derive more satisfaction from—the happiness and success of his many friends and colleagues. As amazing as his contributions as an advocate, intellectual, and public servant were, Walter’s most profound legacy may well be the many careers he launched and sustained and the many lives he touched. He made the country better, and he made all of us who knew him better.

Update, Feb. 17, 2022: An additional tribute was added to this article after publication.

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