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By Setear, John K. | Stanford Law Review, April 2006 | Go to article overview

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Setear, John K., Stanford Law Review


It is 1985. Ronald Reagan is battling the Evil Empire. Joe Gibbs has just taken the Washington Redskins to two Super Bowls. Michael Jackson, resculpted but not yet freakish, leads a huge chorus in "We Are the World." Sandra Day O'Connor has been the First Woman on the U.S. Supreme Court for four years and, in the Washington social milieu of the time, still probably resides on the A-list ahead of any of the aforementioned men.

So, if you clerked for Justice O'Connor in 1985, everyone you met anywhere knew who your employer was once they knew who your employer was. Everyone anywhere would then tend, incomprehensibly, to skip over such important questions as how you got such a great job, or whether you were worried that you might persuade her to adopt a position that law professors would then gleefully tear to pieces for generations to come. Instead, they would invariably ask, "What's she like?"

"Really smart," would be an excellent and accurate answer--but, sadly, one that was often dismissed. Inquisitors tended already to believe either that all Justices were smart (if the inquisitor was a normal person) or that all Justices must be dumb (if the inquisitor worked for a member of Congress). Additionally, the occasional wiseacre would ask, "Well, then, how come William H. Rehnquist graduated first in that Stanford Law School class and Sandra Day only graduated third?" (I have always wondered who graduated second: Wally Pipp, Jr.?)

"Okay," your inquisitor would respond, "she's really smart. But what's she like?"

"Ah, well," you would say. "Really great to work for, actually. She really cares about us as people. She has a party for each one of us on our birthday, with ice-cream cake and a bottle of champagne. She asks us whether we're dating and tries to set up people who are single. She takes everybody out, one at a time, for a night-on-the-town kind of thing at some point during the year. (1) She'll take us all to the opening of a National Gallery exhibition every once in a while. And the whole chambers goes on an outdoor outing towards the end of the Term."

At this point, your interlocutor would be suitably impressed, especially if said interlocutor had talked to any other Justice's law clerks, as they would be limited in their misty-eyed anecdotes to tales of how their Justice now elbowed them on the basketball court less aggressively than he had at the start of the Term, or had never seen pizza, or had endearingly assumed away the state-action jurisdictional requirement. So, despite putting in what were often long hours, my co-clerks and I knew that we were incredibly lucky not just to work for any Justice, but to work for our particular Justice.

It is 2006. I am attending the first O'Connor law clerks' reunion since the Justice announced her retirement. I assume that it will be like many reunions before--a chance to catch up a bit with old friends sharing similar memories, an opportunity occasionally to play the eminence un peu plus grise with the ever-(relatively)-younger current clerks, a minute or two with the Justice for some warm hellos and hearty updates. I assume also that the schedule will be like that of many reunions before--dinner and then some remarks from the Justice summarizing the happenings at the Court since the last reunion, listing recent births of "grandclerks" (as she calls her clerks' children), and emphasizing how absolutely critical the clerks are to her work and how she doesn't know what she would do without us.

This year, however, the brief set of remarks was much briefer and different in a way that must have made pretty much everyone's throat swell and eyes well up with tears, as she described the view just past the bench:

   I've hired four clerks a year for twenty-five years. Now that I'm
   retired, there won't be many more, so this is pretty much all of
   you. I won't say too much more because, if I do, I'll start to cry. … 

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