Supreme Court Clerk Hiring Watch: Up-And-Coming Feeder Judges
Plus Justice Jackson's interesting new hiring process, and clerks with unusual backgrounds (and more familial connections).
Welcome to Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, and you can email me at email@example.com. This is a reader-supported publication; you can subscribe by clicking on the button below. Thanks!
In a few days, I’ll be heading off for a fairly long vacation, trading the cold of northern New Jersey for the warmth of the Philippines. But before I do that, and before the year draws to a close, I wanted to provide you with an update on Supreme Court law clerk hiring, since my last SCOTUS clerkship roundup was back in July.
As usual, here are some sundry observations before the lists of names:
The conservatives are farther along in their hiring than the liberals. For October Term 2023 (aka the 2023-2024 judicial year), the six Republican-appointed justices have completed their hiring, and I have the clerk names to prove it (with the exception of one clerk to Justice Amy Coney Barrett whose name I happen to be missing). For October Term 2024, I show three conservatives as fully hired—Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh—and Justice Kavanaugh even has two hires for October Term 2025.
In contrast, for the Democratic appointees in OT 2023, I show a full house for Justice Elena Kagan only, plus one hire by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. For OT 2024, I have one hire for Justice Kagan and none for Justices Sotomayor and Jackson. If I had to guess, Justice Sotomayor will make some hires in the next month or two, while Justice Kagan will make additional hires in summer 2023.
As is always the case with these roundups, I can’t guarantee that the hires I’ve listed below are all the hires made as of this date; they just happen to be the hires I’ve learned about. But I have decent sources on both sides of the aisle, so I don’t think I’m missing too many hires, and I’m fairly certain about the general observation that the conservatives are farther along than the liberals.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is taking an interesting, thoughtful, and more structured approach to clerk hiring. KBJ is using a hiring committee, which is not unusual; she has a more defined timeline, with an application deadline of January 1; and she has certain specific requirements, like a personal statement. It seems that she’s going for a more regularized and rigorous process, rather than the rolling, random process employed by some others. One of Justice Jackson’s current clerks, Claire Madill, founded Law Clerks for Workplace Accountability, and I wonder whether KBJ consulted with Madill in trying to reimagine clerk hiring from the ground up. This could be good; stay tuned.
New feeder judges are emerging. I don’t have complete clerk lists for OT 2023 or OT 2024, but based on the 48 hires listed below—29 for OT 2023, 16 for OT 2024, two for OT 2025, and one for an unspecified Term—here are the feeder judges with two or more clerks bound for One First Street:
W. Pryor (5)
Friedrich (D.D.C.) (5)
Kovner (E.D.N.Y.) (3)
J.R. Walker (2)
Engelmayer (S.D.N.Y.) (2)
Mitchell (Ala.) (2)
Who would I consider the “emerging” feeder judges? If you take the list above and remove the “established” feeders, i.e., any judges who appeared in my feeder-judge ranking based on OT 2017 through OT 2021, you get this list of 11:
Friedrich (D.D.C.) (5)
Kovner (E.D.N.Y.) (3)
J.R. Walker (2)
Engelmayer (S.D.N.Y.) (2)
Mitchell (Ala.) (2)
Of these 11 judges, seven are Trump appointees, which generally means that they are (1) quite conservative and (2) quite young—and therefore probably going to be feeding for many years to come. The non-Trump appointees are Judges Barron, Pillard, and Engelmayer, who are Obama appointees, and Justice Jay Mitchell of the Alabama Supreme Court.
Feeder judges are often judges who clerked for SCOTUS themselves, and that’s reflected in this list of 11 as well. All of them clerked for the Court except for Judge Grant (although she clerked for then-Judge Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit), Judge Friedrich, Judge Pillard, and Justice Mitchell.
What’s the record for most clerks at SCOTUS in a single Term? Judge Thapar has a whopping six clerks at One First Street for OT 2023, and Judge Katsas has the same impressive number for OT 2024 (and both Terms are not yet complete, so it’s possible they could place still more clerks). This means that for the 36 clerks to the active justices, one out of six came from the Thapar chambers for OT 2023 or from the Katsas chambers for OT 2024.
Some feeders are great for specific justices, while other feeders place clerks more broadly. This is useful information if you aspire to clerk for a particular justice, since certain feeders excel at sending clerks to certain justices. For example, Judge Friedrich is a strong ticket to the Kavanaugh chambers, with four out of her five feeds going to Justice Kavanaugh. Similarly, Justice Gorsuch loves him some Oldham clerks; half of NMG’s hires for OT 2023 and OT 2024 clerked for Judge Oldham (or, looking at it another way, four out of Oldham’s five feeds are going to Gorsuch). The Friedrich-Kavanaugh pipeline makes sense in light of the long friendship between the two judges (who actually dated decades ago); I’m not sure of the Oldham-Gorsuch connection, since Oldham never clerked for Gorsuch, whether on the Tenth Circuit or SCOTUS.
Similarly, if you aspire to clerk for Justice Thomas, your best bets would be Chief Judge Pryor, a longtime CT feeder, and Judge Katsas, a former CT clerk; they each have three clerks with Justice Thomas for the next two Terms. But Judge Katsas feeds so much that he also exhibits breadth, placing clerks with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. And Chief Judge Pryor also has clerks with Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Gorsuch, so he’s no one-hit wonder either.
As for breadth of feeding, Judge Thapar has clerks with all six conservative justices during OT 2023 and OT 2024, which seems to be the record (and he has fed to liberal justices in the past as well). Three other judges have clerks with four different justices: Judge Grant has clerks with Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett; Judge Bibas has clerks with Justices Alito, Kagan (interesting), Gorsuch, and Barrett; and Judge Newsom has clerks with Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Barrett.
Feeder courts. Back in my day, the top three feeder courts were the D.C., Second, and Ninth Circuits. But based on the hires in this roundup, the top three courts today are the D.C., Eleventh, and Sixth Circuits. Here are all the courts with three or more clerks in my current lists:
D.C. Circuit (18)
11th Circuit (15)
6th Circuit (12)
5th Circuit (9)
3rd Circuit (7)
2nd Circuit (3)
My interpretation of these stats: feeding is now much more about individual judges than about courts. Or as Professor Orin Kerr put it in a comment on an earlier roundup, “My sense is that, when it comes to prestige, these days it's much more judge-by-judge than circuit-by-circuit. I don't think it makes as much sense as it used to to say that one circuit is more prestigious than another, with the possible exception of the D.C. Circuit.”
It wasn’t always this way. Back in my day, applicants thought a lot about court prestige, which correlated with powerful and prestigious places like D.C., New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. But today—with the possible exception of the Most Holy D.C. Circuit, praised be its name, where pretty much every judge can feed (although we’ll see about the newbies)—courts matter much less than judges. The Eleventh and Sixth Circuits have risen dramatically in the rankings in recent years, thanks to feeders like Chief Judge Pryor, Judge Grant, and Judge Newsom of the Eleventh, and Chief Judge Sutton, Judge Thapar, and Judge Kethledge of the Sixth.
As for cities, Birmingham, Alabama, is one of the “feeding-est” cities in the country. It’s the “duty station” aka home base of Chief Judge Pryor and Judge Newsom, plus Justice Mitchell of the Alabama Supreme Court has a satellite chambers there (with his main chambers in Montgomery). Given its modest population, under 200,000 in 2021, Birmingham must have the highest “future SCOTUS clerks per capita,” if anyone were to try and calculate such a silly stat.
Family ties. My March SCOTUS clerk hiring roundup centered around the theme of “family ties,” and the new hires reflect the reality that it does help to be descended from or married to a past SCOTUS clerk. For example, Reid Coleman, clerking for Justice Thomas in OT 2024, is the son of the late Greg Coleman, the renowned appellate lawyer who also clerked for CT (and who died in a tragic plane crash in 2010). Reid’s co-clerk for Justice Thomas, Thomas Wilson, is married to Annie Wilson, currently scheduled to clerk for Justice Thomas in OT 2023. And as noted in a prior roundup, Will Courtney, also clerking for CT in OT 2023, is a grandson of the late Justice Scalia.
Unusual backgrounds/prior careers. In Business Insider’s profiles of the OT 2022 SCOTUS clerks, there were a number of clerks with interesting backgrounds (or at least more interesting than “K through JD plus one or two clerkships”), and that’s true of some of the new hires. One of Justice Kavanaugh’s OT 2024 hires, Pat Reidy, is an ordained Roman Catholic priest with the Congregation of Holy Cross. As one source informed me, “Father Reidy was a well-known figure on Notre Dame’s campus” circa 2015, thanks to his chaplaincy work. And speaking of Notre Dame, Justice Gorsuch still has a penchant for professors from ND Law: Christian Burset, clerking for NMG in OT 2024, is the third Notre Dame law professor to wind up in the Gorsuch chambers, following Stephanie Barclay and Stephen Yelderman. Burset is a legal historian with expertise in civil procedure.
Okay, I’ve gone on for far too long; let’s look at some names. For subscribers to Original Jurisdiction, updated SCOTUS clerk hiring lists appear below.
Some of you might avail yourself of the free trial, check out the lists, and then cancel before the trial period ends (and that’s totally fine). But if you’ll allow me a suggestion, a subscription to this fine publication is an excellent holiday gift, whether you’re looking for something to request for yourself or looking for something to give to the lawyer, law student, or law-curious person in your life. Happy holidays!
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Original Jurisdiction to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.