PUBLISHED:February 16, 2022

Professor Walter Dellinger, renowned constitutional lawyer and scholar, dies at 80


Dellinger, the Douglas B. Maggs Professor Emeritus of Law, had been member of the Law School's faculty since 1969 and served as acting U.S. solicitor general and assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration.

Professor Emeritus Walter Dellinger at a Law School event in 2010 Professor Emeritus Walter Dellinger at a Law School event in 2010

Professor Emeritus Walter E. Dellinger III, a renowned constitutional lawyer, leading Supreme Court advocate, and adviser to U.S. presidents who served as acting solicitor general and assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration, died Feb. 16 at the age of 80. 

Dellinger, the Douglas B. Maggs Professor Emeritus of Law, had been a member of Duke Law School’s faculty since 1969. He served as acting dean of the Law School from 1976-78 and retired from teaching in 2007. 

Duke University will lower its flags on Feb. 17 in Dellinger’s honor.

“Walter Dellinger was a lion of the law, the legal profession, and legal education,” said Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law. “A cherished member of the Duke Law School faculty for more than five decades, he was a true intellectual in addition to being a legendary lawyer and a generous and big-hearted colleague and friend. Our community will miss him terribly.”

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 adviser to the attorney general and president. Dellinger was confirmed by the Senate and served in the role for three years. 

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.

"The passing of Walter Dellinger is an enormous loss for those of us at the Justice Department who worked alongside and learned from him, for his family who cherished him, and for our nation, which was made better because of him," Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement.

After leaving government service and returning to Duke, Dellinger joined O’Melveny & Myers in Washington, where he was a partner and led the appellate and 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 high 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. Like my colleagues and all who knew him, I shall miss Walter very much."

Justice Elena Kagan noted in a statement that Dellinger "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. 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. 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, including 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 Joe Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Court to replace the 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. 

Over the years, Dellinger won numerous awards for his advocacy and leadership. In 2020, he was honored with the American Constitution Society’s lifetime achievement award. National Law Journal previously named him one of America’s 100 most influential lawyers and The American Lawyer presented him with its lifetime achievement award. 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. 

He was preceded in death by his wife, Anne Maxwell Dellinger ’74, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government, who died in May. He 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 H. 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 T. 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 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 this morning: ‘Everyone who knew him loved him.’”

Added James Coleman, 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.”

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.

Former President Clinton wrote on Twitter that Dellinger "was a brilliant lawyer, a legendary professor at Duke, a defender of inclusion and equality, and a good man. I’m grateful I had the chance to know him and work with him."

White House Chief of Staff Ronald Klain, who worked with Dellinger at O’Melveny, called his former colleague “a wise counselor, steadfast advocate, teacher and public servant — a great mentor to me and so many others — and a kind friend.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, tweeted that Dellinger was “a trusted ‘honest broker’ in our profession who could be called on as a respected & fair referee.”

And North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper described Dellinger in a tweet as “a brilliant scholar, attorney, public servant and friend.

“He was a force for good and our prayers go out to his family and friends. Many people who never knew him were helped by the actions he took and the life he led.” 

Tributes to Dellinger have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, SCOTUSblog, Washington Monthly, and numerous other publications.