Supreme Court Clerk Hiring Watch: Meet The October Term 2023 SCOTUS Clerks
Plus Justice Thomas's new financial disclosure, an updated feeder-judge ranking, and a ranking of law firms that hire the most clerks—not just SCOTUS clerks.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a reader-supported publication; you can subscribe by clicking on the button below. Thanks!
This morning, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito released their financial disclosures for 2022, for which they had requested extensions. Justice Alito’s disclosure was unremarkable, but Justice Thomas’s disclosure was unusual and interesting—especially Section VIII (pp. 7-8), “Additional Information or Explanations.”
Justice Thomas followed my advice: “If and when Justice Thomas hires new and better lawyers and accountants, they should go back and audit all of his past disclosures, fixing any and all errors and omissions they notice.” From his new disclosure:
During the preparation and filing of this report, filer sought and received guidance from the Supreme Court’s Legal Office, the Counselor to the Chief Justice,
the staff of the Judicial Conference Financial Disclosure Committee (“Committee”), and personal counsel. Filer continues to work with Supreme Court officials and the Committee staff for guidance on whether he should further amend his reports from any prior years.
Based on those discussions, the information below addresses the new travel disclosure requirements which began coverage with calendar year 2022, personal bank accounts and his spouse’s life insurance that were inadvertently omitted from prior reports for the covered period 2017 thru 2021, mistaken name of spouse’s family real estate holding, and a real estate transaction that predated the covered period.
The disclosure then discusses three subjects in greater detail: “Travel”; “Bank Accounts, Spouse’s Life Insurance, & Family Real Estate Holding”; and “Savannah Real Estate Transaction.” Under each category, the disclosure provides detailed information or explains why more-detailed information is not required. This strikes me as a demonstration of good faith on the part of Justice Thomas. But some critics remain unsatisfied—see, e.g., Fix the Court (criticizing the new disclosures from both Justices Thomas and Alito).
Note that today’s new disclosures cover calendar year 2022. In light of the greater scrutiny their travels are getting these days, from media organizations like ProPublica and groups like Fix the Court, I wonder whether the justices changed their behavior in 2023—especially during the summer that’s now drawing to a close, which is when they typically take big trips. For example, did Justice Clarence Thomas stick to the Walmart parking lots, eschewing the private jets and yachts of wealthy friends like Harlan Crow? I guess we’ll see when their 2023 financial disclosures come out—disclosures that now explicitly require them to list private-jet travel, no longer considering it a form of “personal hospitality.”
While we wait for the justices to return to One First Street for the “long conference” on September 26, let’s turn our attention to the folks who are stuck in the building: the newest crop of Supreme Court clerks, who arrived in July. The Court’s Public Information Office kindly provided me with its official list of law clerks for October Term 2023 (OT 2023), which I compared to the list from my last SCOTUS clerk hiring roundup, and all my information checked out. I fixed a few minor errors regarding clerkship order—in the parentheticals after each clerk’s name, I try to list their clerkships in chronological order, and I messed a few of these up—but all my clerk names, law schools, and prior clerkships were correct. (The one thing the official list contained that I hadn’t previously reported was the identity of retired Justice Stephen Breyer’s clerk: Frank “Cody” Kahoe III (Stanford 2021 / Berzon / Cooper (D.D.C.)).)
Now that I have the information for all 38 clerks, officially confirmed by the Supreme Court itself, I can conduct the demographic analysis that I perform every year. Let’s get to it, shall we?
1. Gender. The OT 2023 class contains 38 clerks—four for each active justice, plus one each for retired Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer (who will work in the chambers of an active justice in addition to assisting their retired bosses with various projects). Of the 38 clerks, 23 are men and 15 are women, making for a class that’s 61 percent male and 39 percent female. This is more balanced than the OT 2022 class, which was 66 percent male and 34 percent female, but less balanced than the OT 2021 class, which was 51 percent male and 49 percent female. I’d say a 61-39 split is roughly in line with the recent historical average.
All nine of the active justices have at least one female clerk. Four justices—Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Brett Kavanaugh, and Ketanji Brown Jackson—have two female clerks. One justice, Justice Elena Kagan, has three female clerks.
2. Feeder schools. The OT 2023 clerk class hailed from 13 law schools, which by SCOTUS standards is on the high side. It’s up from 10 law schools for OT 2022 and 12 schools for OT 2021. Here’s the ranking, with the number of clerks noted parenthetically:
BU Law (1)
Last Term, Yale was #1 with 12 clerks and Harvard was #2 with 8 clerks; this Term, the two schools tied, with ten apiece. With 20 clerks between them, Harvard and Yale accounted for more than half of OT 2023 clerks (53 percent). The clerks’ alma maters are at least more diverse than the justices—four Harvard grads, four Yale grads, and one Notre Dame grad (so 89 percent from Harvard or Yale).
3. Feeder judges. Some 48 different judges sent clerks to the Court this Term, which is on the high side—higher than the 43 in OT 2022, 46 in OT 2021, and 39 in OT 2020.
Here are the 13 feeder judges with more than one clerk at the Court for OT 2023, with the number of clerks noted parenthetically:
W. Pryor (4)
Friedrich (D.D.C.) (3)
Kovner (E.D.N.Y.) (3)
The ranking above, however, is just for a single Term. To get a more accurate sense of feeding power, you should look at feeder judges over multiple Terms. I tend to like five-year spans; five years is a long-enough period to capture significant feeders, but not so long that you’re getting outdated ones.
While you wait for me to update my last five-year ranking of feeder judges, feast your eyes on this ranking from a great National Law Journal article by Avalon Zoppo. The article was published last month and covers OT 2019 through OT 2024—but as explained in the footnote, the OT 2024 analysis is incomplete because we don’t have the Supreme Court’s official roster for that Term:
Zoppo’s ranking is based on the six most-recent Terms (including OT 2024, whose clerks won’t start for a year). Looking back over a longer period, she notes that “[p]rominent feeder judges over the past 20 years have included Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III and Ninth Circuit Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain” (my former boss—and I’d like to wish him and Maura, “Mrs. O” to the DFO clerk family, a happy 60th wedding anniversary). To that list I would also add current attorney general and former D.C. circuit judge Merrick Garland—a literal “feeder judge,” adept at scooping ice cream:
4. Miscellaneous observations (which I encourage you to supplement with your own, in the comments):
I have previously praised the unique clerk hiring process of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, which is the most formal—and, I’d argue, the most transparent and fair—approach to hiring. She just issued the letter outlining her process for hiring her OT 2024 clerks, which was posted on the AALS Deans listserv by Dean Roger Fairfax of the American University Washington College of Law. So to my law-student readers, your law school career services office (CSO) should have a copy of this letter; but if your dean failed to pass it along to your school’s CSO, I have posted it below. Considering Justice Jackson’s commitment to a fair and transparent process, I’m guessing she doesn’t have a problem with her hiring process—which is, again, an excellent process—being made public.
The process outlined in her latest letter is substantially similar to her process for the last cycle. I prepared a redline (or blackline?) version against last year’s letter, and here’s what is different in the new letter:
a requirement that applicants “have completed an appellate clerkship at the state or federal level” before their KBJ clerkship (before such a clerkship was optional);
a clarification, now that she’s no longer in her first Term, that “[a]pplicants who previously submitted materials will be reconsidered if they resubmit a complete and updated application”;
a statement that the applicant’s cover letter should explain their application “in narrative form” (which I’m guessing means not just bullets of résumé items, since she can see those on your résumé);
an explanation that recommendation letters should be emailed “by the recommender” (as opposed to the applicant, presumably); and
additional explanation of what she’d like to see in a recommendation, noting that “the most effective recommendation letters will speak directly to the [applicant’s] skills and characteristics… on the basis of the recommender’s firsthand experience. In particular, recommenders should highlight the applicant’s ability to orally communicate complex concepts.”
The trend of doing multiple prior clerkships before a SCOTUS clerkship has gotten stronger over the years. This is something I’ve noted in these pages many times before, but now we have some hard data, courtesy of Professor Derek Muller at Excess of Democracy (via Karen Sloan of Reuters). He noted that for OT 2003, twenty years ago, 33 out of 35 clerks (to the active justices) had just one prior clerkship; for OT 2013, ten years ago, 25 clerks had one prior clerkship, while 11 had two; and for OT 2023, only 7 of 36 clerks had one prior clerkship—i.e., 29 clerks came to One First Street with multiple clerkships.
Another trend among SCOTUS clerks revealed in Muller’s data: the increasing popularity of two federal-appellate aka circuit clerkships (as opposed to a circuit- and a district-court clerkship, or a federal clerkship and a state clerkship). Of the 29 clerks for OT 2023 with multiple prior clerkships, 11 had two prior circuit clerkships—which used to be unheard-of.
Here’s another statistic that demonstrates the phenomenon: the 38 law clerks for OT 2023 completed a total of 73 clerkships, which works out to an average of 1.9 clerkships per clerk. That’s almost double the figure from OT 2003, when it was basically one clerk, one prior clerkship.
In recent roundups, I have pointed out fun facts about SCOTUS clerks being related to prominent people in the legal profession, former SCOTUS clerks, and the like. I won’t repeat all those observations here, but I do have one to add that I missed: Nathaniel Sutton (UVA 2021 / Bress / W. Pryor), clerking for Justice Amy Coney Barrett in OT 2023, is the son of Chief Judge Jeffrey Sutton (to whom Nathaniel dedicated his student note for the Virginia Law Review).
The October Term 2022 clerks have left the building, and in a few months—after lavish, Harlan Crow-esque vacations, funded by their eye-popping SCOTUS clerk signing bonuses (email me if you know the latest going rate, subject line “SCOTUS Clerk Bonuses”)—the former clerks will start at law firms. Which law firms have hired the most clerks—not just SCOTUS clerks, but also circuit-, district-, and state-high-court court clerks—over the past three years? Over at LinkedIn, Adam Oliver of Firm Prospects, a treasure trove of data about legal hiring, has the rankings.
Okay, that should suffice for now. As always, if you have hiring news that I have not yet reported or any updates or corrections, please reach out by email (email@example.com) or text (917-397-2751). Be sure to include the words “SCOTUS Clerk Hiring” in your email or text message.
Below please find two items: (1) the letter sent by the chambers of Justice Jackson to clerkship applicants, which outlines her process, and (2) updated SCOTUS clerk hiring lists, for paid subscribers to Original Jurisdiction. Enjoy!
LETTER FROM THE CHAMBERS OF JUSTICE KETANJI BROWN JACKSON TO CLERKSHIP APPLICANTS
Thank you for your interest in applying for a clerkship in Justice Jackson’s chambers. Justice Jackson seeks clerks with excellent legal research and writing skills, proficiency managing complex and competing workflows, and the ability to overcome challenges. She is also interested in clerks who are committed to pursuing equal justice under law, and who bring to chambers valuable professional and personal experience that is relevant to the work of the Supreme Court. For October Term 2024, Justice Jackson will only consider applicants who have completed an appellate clerkship at the state or federal level by January 1, 2024.
Justice Jackson will begin considering applicants for OT 2024 in October of 2023. All materials must be emailed to JusticeJackson_Clerkships@supremecourt.gov on or before October 1, 2023. Applicants who previously submitted materials will be reconsidered if they resubmit a complete and updated application. The subject line of the email and the name of the attached PDF file of materials should be in the following format: Last Name, First Name OT 2024 Clerkship Application. Materials must be combined into a single PDF file in the order listed below:
Cover letter of no more than 500 words. Successful applicants will use the cover letter to explain their interest in clerking for Justice Jackson and to highlight, in narrative form, the skills and characteristics identified in the first paragraph above. The most effective cover letters will provide different insight into an applicant’s experience from other application materials.
Resume of no more than two pages.
Official law school transcript.
Official transcripts from undergraduate and any other graduate institutions.
List of professional references. The list should include at least four, but no more than six, professional references. Please briefly explain how long and in what context you have worked with each reference. Please also indicate at least two, but no more than four, of the listed references who will provide a letter of recommendation.
All recommendation letters must be emailed by the recommender to JusticeJackson_Clerkships@supremecourt.gov on or before October 1, 2023. The subject line of the email and the name of the attached PDF letter should be in the following format: Applicant Last Name, Applicant First Name OT 2024 Letter of Recommendation, Recommender Last Name, Recommender First Name.
The most effective recommendation letters will speak directly to the skills and characteristics identified in the first paragraph above, on the basis of the recommender’s first-hand experience. In particular, recommenders should highlight the applicant’s ability to orally communicate complex concepts.
Justice Jackson may later ask some applicants to provide existing writing samples or to draft an original sample in response to a prompt.
No information will be considered outside of the formal application process. Neither applicants nor their references, recommenders, or other advocates should contact Justice Jackson or her current or former staff regarding a pending or prospective application.
Justice Jackson thanks you for your interest in clerking for her and looks forward to reviewing your application materials in due course.
The Chambers of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson
For paid subscribers to Original Jurisdiction, I have provided below my lists of the October Term 2023 and October Term 2024 Supreme Court clerk classes.
Once again, if you have hiring news that I have not yet reported or any updates or corrections, please reach out by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or text (917-397-2751). Gracias!
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.