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
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
"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. …