Justice Kagan praises Scalia at ceremony naming law school for him at George Mason

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, 1936-2016. (Photo: MGN Online)

It's official! George Mason University’s Law School is now Antonin Scalia Law School. Its namesake a U.S. Supreme Court Justice for 30 years. He was 79 when he died on February 13. U.S. Justices Kennedy, Alito, Breyer and Thomas were in the crowd. Justice Kagan shared a few words.

"Congratulations to George Mason University," she said.

Kagan praised the late justice and conservative icon for transforming legal culture and challenging law students "to think harder than they've ever thought before."

"He could grab hold of students, shake them and turn them upside down solely by means of his written opinions," she said.

This is the second time in about six months the Law School is being renamed after Scalia. The first time sparked a storm of immature jokes on social media. It was originally called Antonin Scalia School of Law. Lookup its acronym and hashtag online to see what ABC7 News is talking about.

The jabs prompted an anonymous $20 million donation to make today's renaming happen and a peaceful demonstration outside.

About 30 students, faculty, alumni and Virginia taxpayers protested the undue influence they believe donors have on what they're taught at GMU which is a public school. They want a faculty review of donor agreements.

"It's about the strings that are attached to the money and not who the donations are from. Yet again our voices were ignored," said Janine Gaspari, a sophomore at George Mason University.

The Law School’s Dean Henry Butler disagrees.

"They can have their view,” said Butler. “I don't think their views are very well informed and are to some extent naive about the process of securing a $20 million dollar donation for a school. I'm not going to be discussing that with the students."

George Mason University officials announced plans to change the name shortly after Scalia died in February. The move was tied to a $10 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation and a $20 million matching grant from an anonymous donor that is contingent on renaming the school.

The new name took effect on July 1.

The school already has a reputation as a conservative powerhouse in the study of economics and law. But the renaming has met resistance from some students and faculty who bristled at associating the school with Scalia's outsized conservative reputation.

The GMU faculty senate passed a resolution in April that questioned the change, and some opponents urged the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia to reject it. But the council said in May it had no oversight role in the matter.

Addressing the controversy, GMU President Angel Cabrera said he had "absolutely no concerns" about the move and said the university remains committed "to the diversity of ideas."

Kagan, a reliable liberal on the court, said Scalia's strict text-based approach to reading the law and interpreting the Constitution changed the way almost all judges and lawyers think, even if they don't share his ideology.

"In reading a statute, does anyone now decline to focus first on its text and context?" she said. "When addressing constitutional meaning, does anyone ignore the founders' commitments?"

Kagan further asked whether anyone questions the need to prevent judges from acting on their personal policy preferences.

"If the answer is `no' -- and the answer is no, or mostly no -- Justice Scalia deserves much of the credit," she said. "And that is a legacy worthy of a law school dedication."

Scalia's daughter Catherine Courtney, an administrative assistant and academic adviser at GMU's engineering school, told the crowd she is proud to work at a university that is honoring her father.

"It's pretty cool on Mason spirit Fridays that I get to wear a hat with my dad's name on it," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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