Mason's Antonin Scalia Law School has it roots in the 1979 merger between George Mason University and a small struggling private law school, the International School of Law.
The George Mason University School of Law, today known as Antonin Scalia Law School, became Mason’s first program in Arlington in 1979 after the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates passed Senate Bill 607, authorizing the merger between George Mason University and the International School of Law.
The International School of Law (ISL) was founded in 1972 by a group of attorneys led by John Brabner-Smith, who became its first dean. In addition to Brabner-Smith, the ISL’s founding attorneys included James L. Fisk, Phil W. Jordan, George L. Powell and Daniel D. Smith.
Brabner-Smith was part of the Illinois State Attorney’s prosecution team whose work helped bring down the notorious gangster, Al Capone. He then worked for the federal government before switching to private practice in Washington, DC. During World War II, he served as Chief of the Legal Division of the Army Provost Marshall General's office. After World War II, he served on the German Allied Control Council and lectured throughout Germany about constitutional governments. There, he met his future wife, Daniela Siemens. The couple married during the Berlin Airlift in 1948 and settled in Washington, DC.
In 1972, Daniela Brabner-Smith met University of Virginia Law School graduate and Marine Corps veteran Daniel D. Smith at a conference. They became friends, and she invited him and his wife to visit. During the Smith's visit, Brabner-Smith explained his plan to start a law school emphasizing morals and ethics. He invited Smith to join the ISL’s group of founders, who also financed the law school’s operations. Smith initially declined before accepting a few months later and becoming Administrative Dean.
Smith, Powell, and their wives recruited the ISL’s first students by visiting the admissions office of the George Washington University Law School, obtaining the addresses of rejected applicants, and sending each one a mimeographed letter inviting them to apply for the ISL. Their efforts resulted in the ISL’s inaugural class of 32 students, who received instruction from part-time faculty. The following year, the ISL grew and moved to spaces on Rhode Island Avenue, which the faculty and students renovated themselves.
However, despite efforts by the students and faculty to grow and improve the school, the American Bar Association (ABA) denied the ISL’s accreditation, making it nearly impossible for its graduates to practice law. The ISL applied for ABA accreditation a second time after adding several full-time faculty. However, right before their ABA review appointment, Brabner-Smith withdrew the application without consulting the ISL’s board members. As a result, the board terminated Brabner-Smith in 1975 and hired Ralph Norvell as Dean later that year. In 1977, the ISL purchased and moved into the former Kann’s department store building in the Virginia Square section of Arlington. Despite improvements to its space and faculty, the ISL was again denied ABA accreditation because it was a freestanding law school without an association to an accredited university.
The ISL would need to merge with a university to continue, and George Mason University wanted to add a law school as part of its offerings. Norvell and George Mason University Board of Visitors Rector, Til Hazel, himself a Harvard Law alum, agreed to work together. To ensure the merger would succeed, Hazel created the “Urge to Merge” lobbying campaign to convince Virginia’s General Assembly to give their approval.
Law school students were motivated by the prospect of accredited degrees and a chance to sit for the bar exam, so they collaborated with Hazel on the campaign and were instrumental in its success. They traveled to Richmond and lobbied the General Assembly to approve the merger. Hazel said regarding the “Urge to Merge” campaign, “I was down there lobbying every way I knew how, but the real lobbyists, the effective ones, were the law students.” Both the House of Delegates and the Senate approved the merger by wide margins in early February 1979.
Officially opening on July 1, 1979, the newly established George Mason University School of Law held its first commencement in August of 1980, graduating 265 and received full ABA accreditation in 1986. In 2016, the law school was renamed Antonin Scalia Law School, after the late Supreme Court Justice. Today the Antonin Scalia Law School enrolls just over six hundred students.