Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

July 19, 2006:

Alumni clerking

Alumni clerking for Supreme Court justices, from left: Amy Kapczynski ’96 (O’Connor), Jeffrey Pojanowski ’00 (Kennedy), Hannah Clayson Smith ’95 (Thomas and Alito), Daniel Kearney ’96 (Roberts). Benjamin Horwich ’99 (O’Connor and Alito) is not pictured. (MASSIE RITSCH ’98)

Behind the scenes at high court

Alumni clerk for supreme court justices: If the senators who opposed putting Samuel A. Alito Jr. ’72 on the Supreme Court had a problem with his alma mater — “I really didn’t like Princeton,” one said during confirmation hearings — then they might have worried, too, about the University’s influence behind the scenes at the high court. Over the last year, five young alumni have clerked for Supreme Court justices. Two of them worked for Alito.

The court’s eight associate justices typically have four clerks each, for a year at a time. Clerks tend to have worked for other federal judges. Last year, Daniel Kearney ’96 was wrapping up with Judge John Roberts on the U.S. Court of Appeals when President Bush nominated Roberts to lead the Supreme Court. Kearney became one of Roberts’ clerks. Jeffrey Pojanowski ’00 also had clerked for Roberts on the lower court but joined Justice Anthony Kennedy’s chambers last year.

“It’s more luck than anything, being in the right place at the right time, with the right people,” said Benjamin Horwich ’99, who started the term with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and moved to Alito’s chambers when he replaced her. As a privilege of retirement, O’Connor kept one of her clerks, Amy Kapczynski ’96, who assists with speeches and other writing and research.

The current 2005 term technically runs from October 2005 to October 2006, but clerks depart at various times in July.
A clerk’s role, Pojanowski says, is to “be somewhere between research assistant and a less-experienced interlocutor [the justice] can bounce ideas around with.” Clerks advise their bosses on which cases the Supreme Court should hear, prep them for the cases, and draft opinions. Those are heavy responsibilities for someone recently out of law school. “We’re very naïve in the sense that we don’t have well-formed views” about the legal questions that cases present, Horwich says, so arguments about the law, not long-held ideology, persuade clerks. The ultimate decisions, of course, are made by the nine justices. “It’s comforting that in the end it’s not my call,” Pojanowski says.

Although clerks and justices usually work together for only a term, they often remain close, said Hannah Clayson Smith ’95. When Alito, her former boss on the Court of Appeals, was nominated to the high court, he asked for Smith’s help in preparing for his confirmation hearings and then invited her to join his chambers.

Now that their clerkships are almost over, the Princetonian clerks are weighing their options. Law firms clamor for departing Supreme Court clerks and dangle $200,000 bonuses for signing on — far more than the $63,335 they earned at
the court. Some clerks might become judges later in their careers. And a very few, like onetime-clerk John Roberts, will return to the Supreme Court as justices.

By Massie Ritsch ’98

Massie Ritsch ’98 is communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C.