B rian Fitzpatrick agrees with what he terms the "common line" on a Supreme Court clerkship: "It's the best job you'll ever have, and you're only 25 years old."
Professor Fitzpatrick, whose research addresses judicial selection as well as class action litigation, clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia in the 2001 term. Fitzpatrick recalls his initial surprise at the "dearth of staff" on the Supreme Court, but he soon understood why the staff was so small. "When you take a job with a high government official, you expect that a lot of the work will be done by staff," he says. "Justices have very light staffs because they do so much of the work themselves. I had expected it to be much more of a staff-driven job, but I found that Justice Scalia could do his job without a staff. He's an incredible writer, and he sits down at a computer and is quite happy to write his own opinions."
Ashley Jones Johnson '04 treasures the memory of the early morning conversations she shared with Justice Clarence Thomas, for whom she clerked in the 2005 term. "I came in early to miss the traffic, and Justice Thomas is an early morning person," she says. "He is incredibly down to earth and very close to his clerks, and he would just come into my office and sit down to talk." Justice Thomas' calm and friendly demeanor made the intensity of the work less stressful, Johnson recalls, particularly as the end of the term approached and the pace became more frenetic. "Some cases are tremendously controversial, and you might have 20 or 30 amicus briefs to read and digest," she says, recalling the time crunch that intensified as the end of the term approached in June.
Johnson recently joined Gibson Dunn & Crutcher's Dallas office because the firm offered her an opportunity to join its appellate practice. As a Supreme Court clerk, she notes, "You gain an incredible understanding of how the court works. Now that I'm writing petitions seeking review, I realize how much I learned from reviewing cert petitions about how the Court decides which cases to take."
Lisa Bressman, a renowned scholar of administrative law who joined Vanderbilt's faculty in 1998, calls clerking on the Supreme Court "an unparalleled experience—I analogize it to being struck by lightning. The experience was that rare, and the opportunity that awesome. You never tire of walking the halls each day, being struck by the history made there and the importance of the work being done there." Professor Bressman calls her clerkship for Justice Stephen Breyer during his first year on the Court during the 1994 term "especially magical," because Justice Breyer was learning the mechanics of how the Court operates at the same time as his clerks. "That experience gave me a special connection to Justice Breyer, and I gained a large measure of respect for the Justices and the way the Court runs," she recalls.
Bressman also honed her interest in administrative law. "I find administrative law really interesting, and I was fortunate to clerk for an administrative law professor," she says. "I found much to learn in the statutory cases that came before the Court that year. But my term was also one in which the Court decided several interesting constitutional cases, including United States v. Lopez." Lopez was an appeal on behalf of a Texas high school student charged with carrying a concealed weapon into his high school. The initial charge against him—of violating a Texas law prohibiting firearm possession on school premises—was dismissed after federal agents charged Lopez with violating the 1990 Gun-Free School Zones Act. His appeal argued that the Act was unconstitutional because it exceeded the scope of the Commerce Clause, and Lopez prevailed in a 5-4 decision. Justice Breyer wrote a dissent. "That's when the Court began to make changes to Commerce Clause jurisprudence, and the result in Lopez took many by surprise," Bressman recalls.
The three former Supreme Court clerks were particularly gladdened by the news that 2005 graduate Kate (Komp) Tarbert will join the small, exclusive group of Supreme Court clerks when she joins the staff of Chief Justice John Roberts in 2010. (read more) "It's a great deal of fun," says Professor Fitzpatrick, who has fond memories of Justice Scalia's "remarkable wit and terrific sense of humor."
"You're working for smart people and with smart people, and you're doing things that make a difference," he says. "It really is the best job you'll ever have."