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Reviews |  When Walter Dellinger spoke “the judges paid attention”


The Constitution was also the product of a “literally indescribable compromise” with the slaveholders, as Mr. Dellinger never hesitated to say, and should be understood in that light. In a guest essay for The Times last month, he came out strongly in support of President Biden’s public wish to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court. Dismissing Republican complaints that Mr Biden’s pledge was somehow “offensive”, Mr Dellinger cited the “long and important tradition of presidents considering the demographics of future justices”. “Our history shows that the process of reaching out to expand the personal backgrounds of judges has often produced stellar jurists who have made historic contributions to the court and to our justice system,” he added.

Pamela Karlan, a law professor at Stanford University, recalled Mr Dellinger’s fondness for a poem by Walt Whitman, ‘The Wound-Dresser’, which is carved into the subway station she used when she was visiting him in Washington, D.C. The poem is about Whitman’s time as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. “I always thought Walter was trying to heal the American wound of race,” she said. “He was there to heal the world.”

Poetry was just one of the art forms that moved him. He followed the television series “Mad Men” closely enough to post long late night comments to online forums about the show. One of his comments led to a panel discussion, hosted by the Wall Street Journal, in which Mr. Dellinger first explained his affection for “Mad Men” and then – again the lawyer – pointed out that a chronological gap between seasons had jumped completely on two major national events: the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the brutal murder that year of three civil rights activists in Mississippi.

In 1988, Mr. Dellinger was selected to be a Fellow of the National Humanities Center, along with Rita Dove, who would later be named American Poet Laureate. “I remember being so impressed by its authenticity; a southerner who is deeply committed to civil rights,” Ms. Dove told me. “He was always a sniper, but his humor was the humor of the blues. You laughed so as not to cry.

Although I was never a student of Mr. Dellinger, I felt like I had earned an honorary degree from our countless email exchanges and hours of phone calls over the years. What struck me in each exchange was his love – unabashed and not at all possessive – of the ideals that underpin American democracy. He had no jealousy for those who knew more than he did, nor disdain for those, like me, who knew much less.

I called him recently about an article I was writing about the Equal Rights Amendment, which would ban discrimination based on sex. There is a long-standing and legally complex dispute over whether the amendment should already be considered part of the Constitution. I found myself torn, but not Mr. Dellinger. His perspective was, as always, informed by both extensive legal training and common sense. “The tiebreaker for me is how hard it is to amend the Constitution. There are so many ways to make the process harder. What I mean is, it’s damn hard enough.

There’s never a good time to lose someone like Walter Dellinger. It’s especially overwhelming right now, as a turbocharged right-wing supermajority on the Supreme Court prepares to erase decades of precedent that had paved the way, however imperfectly, toward a more just, equal, and inclusive America. But Mr. Dellinger, a fierce liberal who spent much of his life deep in the old confederation, was always acutely aware of the forces he faced. Fortunately, he trained a generation of lawyers to think and fight as he did.



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