Women Gaining in Court-Clerk Contest

By: David Lat

After the Supreme Court enters its summer recess this month, a new wave of eager young legal scholars in training will arrive. The Supreme Court’s 37 law clerks—the brilliant legal minds who assist the justices in selecting cases for review, preparing for oral argument, and drafting opinions—will hand over their duties to a new crop of clerks.

Demographically, the incoming class looks like those of past years—mostly white, mostly recent law-school graduates with impressive academic records earned from the nation’s top law schools.

With eight clerks apiece, Harvard and Yale dominate the list, as they typically do. But there are some surprises. Northwestern, with three clerks, ties with Stanford and the University of Chicago for third place. Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law claims its first clerk since 1981.

Fourteen of the 37 incoming law clerks are women, twice the number during the previous term, when the low number of female clerks—seven of 37—generated controversy.

There appear to be four nonwhite clerks among the new group. Three are Asian-American: Antonin Scalia’s Aditya Bamzai, Anthony Kennedy’s Michael Chu, and David Souter’s Bert Huang. Micah Smith, another incoming Souter clerk, is half African-American, half Japanese.

Most clerks graduated from law school within the past two years and come to the court from a clerkship with a well-respected federal appeals judge—a typical path for a high-court clerk. In Justice Samuel Alito’s chambers, though, the average clerk graduated from law school more than five years ago, as Alito is making a practice of drawing largely from the ranks of his former appeals-court clerks who are now practicing lawyers. The one exception? Jessica Phillips, daughter of Carter Phillips, a leading Supreme Court litigator, former Alito colleague in the Solicitor General’s office, and former high-court clerk himself.

Jessica Phillips is not the only clerk with a prominent father. Incoming Scalia clerk Rachel Kovner, who graduated from Stanford Law School with the highest GPA in her class, is the daughter of hedge-fund guru Bruce Kovner. Kovner père ranks 85th on the Forbes 400, with an estimated net worth of $3 billion.

Being a Supreme Court clerk offers its own financial perks: Many top law firms now offer $200,000 signing bonuses to snag them afterward.