Young legal stars spend heady year at high court

AP News
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Posted: Oct 03, 2014 11:58 AM
Young legal stars spend heady year at high court

WASHINGTON (AP) — Joshua Matz didn't bother waiting to write about the Supreme Court until he went to work there. He teamed with a renowned Harvard law professor to finish a book about the court before he started his year as a law clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Unlike Matz, Christopher Michel is not listed as an author of the book he worked on years before his clerkship with Chief Justice John Roberts. But former President George W. Bush offered warm praise for onetime presidential speechwriter Michel as his collaborator on his memoir, "Decision Points." Bush said in the book's acknowledgements that Michel's help made the project surprisingly enjoyable.

Matz and Michel stand out among their fellow clerks at the high court because of their book experiences. But they also fit right in among the young elite of the legal world who tend to be accomplished and polished beyond their years, and more likely than not to leave a mark on their profession.

Like the justices they serve, they are overwhelmingly graduates of Harvard and Yale. The 24 men and 12 women in this year's class of clerks will spend the next 10 months reading thousands of appeals filed with the court, researching cases the justices agree to hear and drafting early versions of their bosses' opinions.

They are sworn to public silence during their time at the court. Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said no clerks would comment for this report. A private dining room in the court's cafeteria allows the clerks to talk over lunch without worrying about who might be listening.

Bonuses of more than $300,000 await those who enter private practice. Prestigious teaching jobs, judgeships, political careers and even Supreme Court seats are real possibilities.

The ranks of former clerks include Roberts, Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, and Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

In "Uncertain Justice: The Roberts Court and the Constitution," Matz and Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe argue that on a range of big issues, political gridlock and societal change have increased the court's influence. One of those issues is gay marriage, on which they wrote that "the court left the door open just wide enough to retreat from the field if it so chooses when it accepts another marriage case."

Matz now finds himself working at the court at a moment when the decision to take on same-sex marriage appears imminent. He works in the office of the justice who has written the court's three major pro-gay rights decisions and almost certainly will determine the outcome once more.

"He was impressive enough that I felt I should call Justice Kennedy, not just write a letter, but call him and emphasize what an unusual catch Joshua would be," Tribe said in a telephone interview.

Justices recruit their law clerks in several ways. Some look to like-minded appellate judges or take recommendations from prominent legal scholars such as Tribe, a law clerk to Justice Potter Stewart in the 1960s. Others rely on their former clerks to screen potential hires.

Justice Clarence Thomas gets together once a month with his former clerks, and those gatherings help build relationships and a network where they can trade professional and personal advice, said Carrie Severino, a clerk during the 2007-08 term and now chief counsel at the conservative Judicial Crisis Network.

"Recommendations from former clerks always carry a lot of weight with the justice," Severino said.

Thomas' choices tend to share his conservative ideology, Severino said as she recalled the justice's vivid description of the situation 15 years ago.

"I'm not going to hire clerks who have profound disagreements with me," Thomas said in Dallas in 1999 in remarks preserved on C-SPAN's website. "Someone said that is like trying to train a pig. It's a waste of your time, and it aggravates the pig."

Among Thomas' clerks is Jennifer Bandy, who led Dartmouth College Republicans during the 2008 presidential campaign. Bandy also has been nationally ranked as a competitive clay pigeons shooter.

Many lawyers who work for the justices are just a couple of years out of law school, and often have had prior jobs with one or two lower court judges.

But one of Justice Samuel Alito's clerks is Brigham Young University law professor Aaron Nielson, who teaches about the federal courts and other topics. Another BYU professor, David Moore, clerked for Alito in his second full term as a justice.

"I was definitely one of the older clerks," Moore said in an interview. He said his experiences teaching and practicing law helped with the steep learning curve. He had three young children at the time he clerked, but despite the pressure of the job and some late nights, he said he could spend quality time with his family during their year in Washington.

Nielson has four children, which sets him apart from his colleagues. He also is a bit older than most clerks. But at 34, Nielson is still a rising legal star.

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Associated Press writer Sam Hananel contributed to this report.

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