A Tale of the Supreme Court's Two S(o)uters Retired Major-General Tames the Court's Torrent of Paperwork, Facilitates Petition Filing, Coaches Lawyers, and Ribs Justices

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BEFORE it gets to Souter, a case in the United States Supreme Court goes to Suter.

The nine justices of the Supreme Court, including Associate Justice David Souter, ultimately decide if the court will hear a case. But before any petition, brief, or other filing reaches the justices, it must pass muster with William Suter, the clerk of America's highest court.

"Pass muster" is used advisedly, for Mr. Suter is a former major-general in the Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) corps. While he is genial and outgoing, Suter has the commitment to discipline and standards, and the adherence to procedure of a man who served in the military for 28 years until his retirement in 1991.

Suter and his staff of 30, including four lawyers, are sticklers when it comes to enforcing the Supreme Court's paperwork rules. But that's not because they are bureaucrats, he insists. Systemization is the only way the clerk's office can efficiently process more than 7,000 appeals from decisions in the lower federal courts and state supreme courts that the high court receives each year, Suter says. Right down to captions

"Our rules are very strict, even down to things like captions," Suter acknowledges. "But they're that way for a good reason - they facilitate the court's handling of all the documents."

"It's in litigants' best interest to get their petitions filed properly, so they can get action taken on their case as soon as possible," he adds.

While the clerk's staff adheres to every jot and tittle of the rules, "we are very service-oriented in helping attorneys" comply with the requirements, Suter says. Members of the staff take dozens of phone calls each day about the rules. And when the office returns a nonconforming petition for more work, it preserves the original filing date.

The clerk is one of four statutory officers who manage the operations of the Supreme Court. The others are the marshal, who is responsible for maintenance and security (he has an 80-member police force); the court librarian; and the reporter of decisions.

Although the clerk's job is primarily administrative, Suter, an experienced litigator, says, "I would not want to have this job and not be a lawyer. You understand the rules of practice and procedure better as a lawyer, and you need to know something about the rules of the lower courts. It's a specialized field, but it requires a lawyer to do it. …