U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said Thursday that the newly renamed Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University celebrates a "remarkable judge and teacher" who will be remembered as one of the greatest justices in history.
Speaking at a dedication ceremony marking the name change, 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.
Five other Supreme Court justices attended the dedication at the school's campus in a suburb of Washington, along with several justices from Virginia's Supreme Court, hundreds of students and faculty, and members of Scalia's extended family.
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 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.
Also attending the dedication were Justices Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas.