Supreme Court

Walter Dellinger, Influential Scholar and Lawyer, Dies at 80

He has been remembered for his friendship and guidance from Duke's campus to the Supreme Court itself

Walter Dellinger
Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP Photo

Walter E. Dellinger, a constitutional scholar who argued numerous cases before the Supreme Court, served in top positions in the Justice Department and taught for decades at Duke University, died Wednesday. He was 80.

Dellinger died Wednesday morning in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, his son Hampton Dellinger said.

During the administration of former President Bill Clinton, Dellinger headed up the influential Office of Legal Counsel that advises the attorney general on often sensitive legal and policy issues and served as the acting solicitor general, the administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer.

While serving as acting solicitor general during the 1996-97 term of the high court, he personally argued nine cases, more than any of his predecessors in two decades at the time. Dellinger was an emeritus professor at the Duke University School of Law, where he had been a faculty member since 1969.

On Wednesday, he was remembered for his friendship and guidance from Duke's campus to the Supreme Court itself.

“Walter was a great mentor and friend to me. He gave the best advice when I became Solicitor General, sharing everything he knew about the job,” Justice Elena Kagan, who served as solicitor general during the Obama administration, said in a statement. “He was generous and kind, and he made everyone he dealt with feel ten feet tall. He was a phenomenal lawyer with an endless string of accomplishments, but he always gave the credit to others.”

Justice Stephen Breyer called Dellinger “a great lawyer and a valuable public servant.”

“His positive contribution to law and to the rule of law in this country will be long remembered,” Breyer said in a statement.

Dellinger remained an active commentator on legal, political and other news until just before his death. Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Dellinger helped lead a legal team assembled by Democrats to take on election-related court cases. And in early February, Dellinger spoke out in defense of Biden’s pledge to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court in an essay published by the New York Times.

“There are approximately 25,000 Black female attorneys in America. There is every reason to believe that President Biden’s nomination process will benefit by focusing on that extraordinary group for the next justice of the United States Supreme Court,” Dellinger wrote.

Walter Dellinger was born in Charlotte and attended the University of North Carolina and Yale Law School. Early in his career, Dellinger served as a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

“Walter lived a wonderful and extraordinary life. He had many loves, first among them his wife Anne but also the State and University of North Carolina, the law and the rule of law, and American democracy,” said Hampton Dellinger, himself an assistant attorney general in the Biden administration’s Justice Department.

As acting solicitor general, Walter Dellinger won five of the cases he argued himself, including when he defended the president's line-item veto and two cases defending state laws outlawing physician-assisted suicide. He got a split decision in another, and lost three, including when the high court threw out a key part of the Brady gun control law and allowed the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit to proceed against Clinton.

“This is the best lawyer’s job in the world,” Dellinger said in a 1997 interview as he prepared to leave the role to return to Duke to teach. He said then that spending time with his family in North Carolina was a big part of his decision.

Prior to that, while leading the Office of Legal Counsel, Dellinger issued opinions on the president’s authority to send U.S. troops to Haiti and Bosnia, as well as the president’s right to decline to enforce laws he believes are unconstitutional.

Overall, Dellinger argued 24 cases at the high court, representing the government and also private clients before and after his time in the administration, according to legal information site

Dellinger was a mentor and friend to many Washington lawyers, especially among Democrats. Tributes came Wednesday from across the political spectrum, with former Judge Michael Luttig, a conservative, tweeting: “Walter Dellinger was a wonderful human being, a spectacular lawyer and counselor, and a friend.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland, who worked with Dellinger at the Justice Department, lauded his impactful work and dedication.

“Walter approached the law not as a career, but as a calling. He believed it was his privilege to be able to use the law to make our democracy work better for everyone," Garland said in a statement.

Dellinger also will be missed by the Duke Law community, dean Kerry Abrams said.

“Walter Dellinger was a lion of the law, the legal profession, and legal education," she said in a statement. "A cherished member of the Duke Law School faculty for more than five decades, he was a true intellectual as well as being a generous and big-hearted colleague, mentor, and friend.”

Sherman reported from Washington.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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