Remembering Walter Dellinger
The renowned constitutional scholar and Supreme Court advocate is also remembered for his kindness and compassion to all
In a tribute to Professor Emeritus Walter Dellinger III, who died on Feb. 16 at the age of 80, President Joe Biden called him “the protector of American democracy.”
Dellinger, the Douglas B. Maggs Professor Emeritus of Law, was a renowned constitutional lawyer, leading Supreme Court advocate, and advisor to U.S. presidents who served as acting solicitor general and assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration. A member of Duke Law School’s faculty since 1969, he served as acting dean of the Law School from 1976 to 1978 and retired from teaching in 2007.
Recalling Dellinger’s leadership in advising his campaign before and after the 2020 election, Biden praised his “prodigious intellect,” his mastery of the law, and his “big heart.”
“He knew that to live the good life was the matter of a thousand little things that built character,” the president said. “The belief that everybody’s your equal. A head to know the difference between knowledge and judgment, and the heart to know what’s truly meaningful and what’s ephemeral. We all felt it in every piece of counsel he provided me and others.”
Those sentiments were echoed by a host of public figures, faculty, and professional colleagues from Dellinger’s long career in academia, public service, and private practice, and former students in the days following his death and during a March 22 virtual memorial celebration co-hosted by Duke Law School and O’Melveny & Myers, where Dellinger was a partner. The event also celebrated the life of his wife, Anne Maxwell Dellinger ’74, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government, who died in April 2021.
“Walter was one of the most astonishingly brilliant, compassionate, and optimistic people to have ever walked this earth,” said Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law. “He did more for the rule of law, the civil rights of individual people, and the well-being of his fellow humans in any one year of his life than most people do in a lifetime. But despite his brilliance and accomplishments he was genuine, humble, and helpful to people in all aspects of his life. He had the gift for touching each individual life and making each person feel incredibly important, worthy, and needed.”
Dellinger was a resident member of the faculty from 1969 until 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated him to be assistant attorney general and head of the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) in the U.S. Department of Justice. The position is the department’s principal legal advisor to the attorney general and president. Dellinger was confirmed by the Senate and served in the role for three years.
“He knew that to live the good life was the matter of a thousand little things that built character. The belief that everybody’s your equal. A head to know the difference between knowledge and judgment, and the heart to know what’s truly meaningful and what’s ephemeral. We all felt it in every piece of counsel he provided me and others.”— President Joe Biden
In 1996, Clinton tapped Dellinger to be acting U.S. solicitor general. Dellinger argued nine cases before the Supreme Court during the 1996-97 term, the most for a solicitor general in 20 years. These included cases dealing with physician-assisted suicide, the line-item veto, the statute regulating cable television, the Brady Handgun Violence Protection Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the constitutionality of remedial services for children attending parochial schools.
“He led the Office of Legal Counsel with great distinction, and was amazing as solicitor general,” Clinton said, also noting the argument that Dellinger later made in an amicus brief in Lawrence v. Texas, in which the Court struck down the Texas law criminalizing sodomy. “It was just one example of how a man with a brilliant mind and a caring heart could use the power of law and the promise of American equality to advance the lives of all of us.”
After leaving government service and returning to Duke, Dellinger joined O’Melveny in Washington, where he led the Supreme Court practice. His appearances before the high court would eventually total two dozen, including arguing the landmark 2008 gun-rights case, District of Columbia v. Heller. In 2013, Dellinger’s amicus brief in Hollingsworth v. Perry — which argued that proponents of California’s same-sex marriage ban lacked standing to appeal a lower court decision striking down the ban — was cited in the Court’s opinion vacating and remanding the case, making marriage equality possible in the state.
In a statement, Justice Stephen Breyer said Dellinger “was a great lawyer and a valuable public servant. He was thoughtful, imaginative, and had a very good sense of humor. His positive contribution to law and to the rule of law in this country will be long remembered.”
Justice Elena Kagan remembered Dellinger as a great mentor and friend. “He gave the best advice when I became solicitor general, sharing everything he knew about the job,” she said in a statement. “He was generous and kind, and he made everyone he dealt with feel 10 feet tall. He was a phenomenal lawyer with an endless string of accomplishments, but he always gave the credit to others. I’ll miss his sense of humor, his clear-eyed optimism, and his passionate engagement with the world of law.”
Dellinger testified before Congress more than 25 times, lectured at law schools and universities around the world, and addressed numerous judicial conferences and legal associations. His articles appeared in the Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal, Duke Law Journal, and other scholarly publications. He was frequently quoted in print and broadcast media, commenting widely on issues related to the Supreme Court and the presidency, and had a longtime collaboration with journalist Dahlia Lithwick in the online magazine Slate. His most recent publication, a guest essay published Feb. 3 in The New York Times, defended President Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Court to replace Justice Breyer.
“This practice of considering prospective justices’ backgrounds and demographic characteristics — engaged in by presidents of both parties over the decades — is not some form of ‘quota’ designed merely to appease political constituencies,” Dellinger wrote. “Rather, it stems from bedrock principles of democratic governance. After all, the Supreme Court exercises immense power to issue decisions that affect and bind all Americans. For that power to be legitimate, and for Americans to continue placing faith in the Court, its members must be representative of all of America.”
In 2020, Dellinger joined with two fellow former solicitors general, Seth Waxman and Donald Verrilli, to advise Biden’s presidential campaign on possible post-election challenges. Last year, Biden named Dellinger to a presidential commission studying possible reforms to the Supreme Court.
Dellinger won numerous awards for his advocacy and leadership. He was honored with lifetime achievement awards by the American Constitution Society and The American Lawyer, and National Law Journal named him one of America’s 100 most influential lawyers. In 2010, he was inducted into the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the highest honor bestowed by the governor of North Carolina.
A longtime resident of Chapel Hill, Dellinger was often seen reading the sports section at Sutton’s Drug Store on E. Franklin Street. “And I don’t get very far beyond sports because I’m distracted by the breakfast counter conversation,” he told Lithwick.
Dellinger grew up in Charlotte and often cited his childhood in the segregated South as an influence for his progressive values and his interest in law. He attended the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he received the Frank Porter Graham Award for the senior with the most outstanding commitment to the ideals of equality, dignity, and community, and Yale Law School, where he was an editor of the Yale Law Journal. After graduation, he taught law at the University of Mississippi and then clerked for Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black during the 1968-69 term.
Dellinger is survived by his sisters, Barbara Dellinger and Pam Swinney, and sons Hampton Dellinger, assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, and Andrew Dellinger. Dellinger’s daughter-in-law, Jolynn Dellinger ’93, is a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law.
Faculty colleagues at the Law School, where Dellinger attended faculty meetings and workshops and spoke at lunchtime events even while maintaining a D.C. law practice, mourned his passing.
Charles S. Murphy Professor Emeritus of Law and Professor Emeritus of Public Policy Christopher Schroeder, who followed Dellinger to the Justice Department in 1993, succeeded him as head of OLC, and is serving in that role again as assistant attorney general in the Biden administration, said Dellinger was “one of a kind” at every point in his remarkable career.
“He brought his sharp analytical and communication skills to all of these responsibilities, along with his wit and an upbeat disposition that could lighten the most somber conversation,” Schroeder said. “Speaking for his many students and his faculty colleagues, we have all had our lives enormously enriched by getting to know him, learn from him, and receive his wise counsel — often delivered with a twinkle or smile. He was a national asset and a true friend of Duke Law School.”
Katharine Bartlett, the A. Kenneth Pye Professor Emerita of Law, who served as dean from 2000 to 2007, recalled Dellinger’s outsized impact on people around him.
“Everything about Walter was over the top: His intellect. His personality. His wit. His appetite for ideas and good conversation. His loyalty to friends and colleagues. His affection for his family. His love for this country and his commitment to its democratic values,” Bartlett said. “It is hard to think of anyone who brought as much energy and devotion to both the public and the private dimensions of his life.”
Professor H. Jefferson Powell, who also joined Dellinger in Washington, serving as a deputy assistant attorney general in the OLC in the Clinton administration and later as principal deputy solicitor general, called Dellinger “an incomparable constitutional lawyer: passionate in his convictions, and equally passionate about the law as the common, essential inheritance of everyone in this country regardless of who they are and what they believe.
“Walter’s commitment to the equal dignity of every person was not just a belief — it was who he was. And he himself was a great human being. As [Professor Emeritus] David Lange, Walter’s dear friend and mine, said: ‘Everyone who knew him loved him.’”
Added James Coleman, Jr., the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law: “Walter was special — a brilliant lawyer, an extraordinary writer, a compassionate colleague, and a very funny person. He never took himself too seriously.”
His sense of humor was evident, Coleman said, in Dellinger’s discussion of UNC basketball during an email exchange with his son hours before his passing. “Our colleague [Professor] Trina Jones called Walter a unicorn, and that captures him perfectly. Heaven just landed a rare game-changing recruit.”
David F. Levi, the Law School’s dean from 2007 to 2018, recalled when he was chief judge of the U.S. district court for the Eastern District of California and Dellinger appeared before him in a case.
“Walter’s unique ability to frame a case and place the emphasis on the important points was on full display,” said Levi, now the Levi Family Professor of Law and Judicial Studies and Director of the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law. “He was a very creative lawyer and scholar. But what stands out even more is the personal: his unfailing kindness to everyone, his joy in the law and in life, his devoted care of his spouse, his commitment to the values he cared about, and his unrivaled gift for friendship.”
Calling Dellinger her “steadfast friend and advisor,” Deborah DeMott, the David F. Cavers Professor of Law, recalled his assistance on a friend-of-court brief to the Supreme Court in 2011. While his law firm colleagues resisted her reference to herself on the brief as “amica,” given its alternate meaning as “courtesan,” Dellinger supported her word choice. “To deny my gender as the author seemed to deny the reality of centuries of progress in women’s roles in the law and its institutions, as well as the range of benevolent relationships between women and men,” DeMott said, adding that Dellinger’s autograph on her copy of the brief read to his “very good amica.”
Dellinger’s death also prompted an outpouring of tributes on social media, with comments from former students, fellow lawyers and scholars, prominent journalists, government officials, and members of Congress.
“Walter was my favorite prof, became a friend, hosted our wedding in his backyard, counseled me on my only Supreme Court argument, and was one of the nicest and most genuine people I ever met,” tweeted Len Simon ’73, a member of the Law School’s Board of Visitors whose wife, Candace Carroll ’74, was also a student of Dellinger’s.
Tributes to Dellinger appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, SCOTUSblog, Washington Monthly, and numerous other publications.