Ex-Marine, professor, MLB draft pick among high court clerks

Jul 20, 2019, 9:28 AM
FILE - In this May 31, 2009, file photo, Western Kentucky's Matt Rice celebrates after beating Miss...
FILE - In this May 31, 2009, file photo, Western Kentucky's Matt Rice celebrates after beating Mississippi during the NCAA Tournament regional baseball game at Oxford-University Stadium in Oxford, Miss. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas chose Berkeley graduate James Matt" Rice for a one-year Supreme Court law clerkship. Bruce Newman/The Oxford Eagle via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A former Marine who deployed twice to Afghanistan. A patent law professor. A woman who’s blind. Two Rhodes scholars.

They’re among the lawyers starting work this summer as law clerks at the Supreme Court.

The group of 16 women and 23 men hired by the justices were already on paths to become leading judges, professors and Supreme Court advocates. The one-year clerkship will cement their high-profile status.

“I think clerking on this court affects everybody’s career who does it. … You put it on your resume and all of a sudden doors open, sometimes justifiably so and sometimes not,” Justice Elena Kagan has said.

She should know.

Kagan, who clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall, is one of five current justices who was once a Supreme Court clerk. So was Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices Stephen Breyer, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh also clerked.

Justices hire four clerks annually; retired justices hire one. The clerks review potential cases, help their justice prepare for arguments, conduct research and write draft opinions.

Scholars disagree about how much influence the clerks have. But what is clear is that while the justices are the public face of the court, the clerks are their behind-the-scenes assistants who help the place run. Clerks generally decline to give interviews until after their clerkships are over. Even then, they are careful about what they will say.

For their work, they’re paid about $83,000. When they’re done, law firms have recently been offering bonuses of $400,000 to clerks who join them.

This year’s clerk group is not without some controversy.

One Kavanaugh clerk is Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld, whose mother, Yale law professor Amy Chua, wrote a Wall Street Journal article praising Kavanaugh as a mentor to women following his nomination. The article came out before Kavanaugh was accused of a sexual assault alleged to have happened decades ago; he denied the accusation. Chua’s article was criticized as self-serving given that her daughter already was in line to clerk for Kavanaugh before President Donald Trump nominated the federal appeals court judge.

Another incoming clerk is Clayton Kozinski, who clerked for Kavanaugh at the appeals court and is now working for retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kozinski’s father, Alex Kozinski, retired abruptly in 2017 from the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals following accusations by women, including former law clerks, that he had touched them inappropriately, made lewd comments and shown them pornography. Kozinski said at the time that many of the things being said about him were not true.

Justices are looking for different things in their clerks.

Top academic credentials are a must. Half the group this year attended law school at Harvard or Yale.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor has said she wants clerks “committed to making a contribution to the world.” Kavanaugh, during his confirmation hearing last year, highlighted his record of hiring female and minority clerks as an appeals court judge. His first group of Supreme Court clerks was all women, a court first.

“There’s all sorts of quirky reasons to explain choices,” said law professor Todd Peppers, who wrote a book about clerking and noted that Chief Justice William Rehnquist liked clerks who played tennis. Justice John Marshall Harlan II preferred golfers.

While most clerks are relatively recent law school graduates, two Breyer and two Gorsuch clerks are older. One Gorsuch clerk is Notre Dame law professor Stephen Yelderman, who clerked for Gorsuch when Gorsuch was an appeals court judge.

The clerks have accomplishments beyond academics.

Kagan clerk Jordan Bock rowed at Harvard, where she studied physics, astrophysics and government. Roberts clerk Joseph Falvey served in the Marines. Megan Braun, another Roberts clerk, played college water polo and was a Rhodes scholar. Mark Jia, retired Justice David Souter’s clerk, was also a Rhodes scholar. Like other clerks for retired justices, he’ll also help a current justice.

Justice Clarence Thomas has said he likes to have clerks who come from different parts of the country and from modest backgrounds. He tends to hire clerks who share his conservative legal philosophy. Among his hires this year is Notre Dame graduate Laura Wolk, who lost her eyesight to retinal cancer as a child.

Wolk, only the second blind person to clerk at the court, seems to share with Thomas a passionate opposition to abortion. Thomas this year likened abortion to eugenics. Wolk has saidthat “even the most severely disabled” can teach others “about what it means to be human.”

Thomas also chose for his team this year James “Matt” Rice, a law school graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. The former college baseball player at Western Kentucky was picked 1,525th — dead last — in the 2010 major league draft.

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Ex-Marine, professor, MLB draft pick among high court clerks