Walter Dellinger, a renowned constitutional law scholar and one of the key legal figures in the Clinton administration, in which he served as chief of the Office of General Counsel and then acting solicitor general, died Wednesday at his Chapel Hill home. , NC He was 80 years old.
His son Hampton, who oversees the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, said the cause was complications from pulmonary fibrosis.
Mr. Dellinger moved to Washington in 1993 after teaching at Duke University School of Law for more than two decades. Like Bill Clinton, the newly elected president, he was a white Southern liberal, a species not yet threatened by the encroachment of social conservatism, and he brought with him a wealth of experience in civil rights advocacy and breeding in North Carolina.
His reputation in the state was such that when President Clinton selected him as assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel, his two home state senators, Jesse Helms and Lauch Faircloth, both Republicans, tried to obstruct his nomination, even though he had the unanimous support of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Helms, a social conservative, made it clear that his opposition was personal: Mr. Dellinger had been a constant antagonist, having advised Senate Democrats in their successful opposition to the nomination of Justice Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court. United in 1987.
“I will go to my grave regretting that Robert Bork did not get the seat on the Supreme Court of the United States that he so deserved,” Helms told reporters. “This man played a part in it.”
The two-man filibuster ultimately failed, and Mr. Dellinger went on to play a key role in many of the toughest constitutional issues of the 1990s, including school prayer and an amendment proposal against the burning of the flag.
Mr. Dellinger was originally considered for the job of solicitor general, whose job it is to defend the administration’s position before the Supreme Court. The post went to Drew S. Days III, who had been the first African American to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. But after Mr. Days resigned in 1996, Mr. Dellinger took his place, in an interim role, for the 1996-97 term.
He appeared in court nine times that year. In one effort, he sought to postpone a Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit against Mr. Clinton until after the president left office (he lost); in another, he argued the administration’s opposition to legislation that would effectively establish a constitutional right to die.
Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor, advocated for the law and pressured Mr. Dellinger to join him in supporting it. He failed and Mr. Dellinger won the case.
“No one could have been a more worthy adversary,” Mr. Tribe said in a telephone interview. “It was always a learning experience to wrestle with Walter, and always exhilarating to have him by your side when you accepted.”
Walter Estes Dellinger III was born on May 15, 1941 in Charlotte, North Carolina. His father, Walter Dellinger II, died when he was young, and he was raised by his mother, Grace (Lawning) Dellinger, who sold men’s clothing.
He received a degree in political science from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1963 and graduated from Yale Law School in 1966.
Along with his son Hampton, he is survived by another son, Drew; his sisters, Barbara Dellinger and Pam Swinney; three grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. His wife, Anne (Maxwell) Dellinger, died in 2021.
As an undergraduate, Mr Dellinger joined picket lines to protest against segregated businesses in Chapel Hill. Several law schools courted him to teach after graduating from Yale; he chose the recently desegregated University of Mississippi because he believed he could play a role there in fostering integration.
He taught for two years and then served as clerk to Justice Hugo L. Black of the Supreme Court.
Afterwards, he decided to return to North Carolina to put down roots and prepare for a possible political career — he wanted to be governor, he told Politico in 2020, “and the only intellectually interesting job in North Carolina was to teach at Duke”.
Mr. Dellinger has never stood for election; instead, he developed a reputation as an outspoken liberal on state and national issues. He wrote for opinion sections of newspapers and weekly magazines like The New Republic, and became a regular face on Sunday political talk shows.
His soft Southern drawl moderated the strength with which he argued positions that even today would put him firmly on the left. At a 1987 symposium marking the bicentennial of the US Constitution, he said the document was based on an original sin that the country had yet to redeem.
“As we celebrate the bicentenary, we must remember that the Constitutional Convention was an event whose immediate success rested in part on a literally indescribable compromise of principle,” he said, referring to the continuation of the slavery.
After President Clinton failed to appoint him solicitor general, Mr. Dellinger first joined the White House as an adviser on constitutional issues. He helped draft a series of executive orders dealing with issues such as the use of fetal tissue in research and the so-called world gag order, which prevented aid groups from discussing abortion if they received federal assistance. Mr. Clinton appointed him to the post of assistant attorney general a few months later.
Mr. Dellinger returned to Duke in 1997. He also joined the international law firm O’Melveny & Myers, where he founded his appeals practice.
Although he never returned to full-time government service, Mr. Dellinger remained a key figure in Democratic and liberal causes. He was a close adviser to Vice President Al Gore during his 2000 election dispute, and he later argued against the government before the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 case on the issue of whether the Constitution protects the individual right to bear arms. (He lost.)
During the 2020 presidential race, Mr. Dellinger joined two other former solicitors general — Seth Waxman, his immediate successor, and Donald Verrilli Jr., who served under President Barack Obama — to form the so-called Three Amigos. , a rapid response team. who prepared the Biden campaign for “doomsday scenarios” in which President Donald J. Trump might refuse to leave office; the president was pictured ordering Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to recognize voters in the state.
“We were fully prepared to go to the Supreme Court by nightfall,” he told The New Yorker in 2021. One of the few scenarios they didn’t prepare for, a- he conceded, was if pro-Trump protesters stormed the Capitol.
Mr. Dellinger remained a prolific opinion writer, contributing frequently to The New York Times, Slate and The Washington Post.
One of his latest essays, which appeared in The Times this month, claimed President Biden was right to announce he would select a black woman to replace Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, who is retiring from the Supreme Court. .
“The Supreme Court wields immense power to make decisions that affect and bind all Americans,” Dellinger wrote. “For this power to be legitimate and for Americans to continue to trust the court, its members must be representative of all of America.”