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MLaw Alum Earns Coveted Clerkship

By John Masson
July 29, 2013

When he got the call a couple of weeks ago advising him he'd been selected to clerk for retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 2010 Michigan Law grad Eli Savit began his metaphorical launch into lunar orbit.

"I'm absolutely over the moon," said Savit, who starts work next summer, in time for the October 2014 Supreme Court term. "Honestly, I haven't been able to stop smiling since I found out. I wake up every morning and have to convince myself that it's real."

Part of the reason for the elation is the special circumstances that attend clerking for a retired Supreme Court justice. Generally, clerks in those positions—each retired justice gets a single clerk—spend part of their time working directly for their retired justice, and the rest of it working as a fifth clerk for one of the active justices.

It's the best of both worlds. Retired justices sit by designation on courts of appeal, so there's plenty of work for a clerk supporting that role. Then there's the opportunity to participate in the work of the active justices, such as helping determine which cases are heard by the high court, preparing for oral argument, and assisting in preparation of opinions on the merits.

Retired justices maintain chambers in the Supreme Court building, so that's where their clerks spend the bulk of their time.

"It's as good a gig, or better, as clerking for an active justice," said Prof. Joan Larsen, who coordinates clerkship applications for Michigan Law and who was a clerk herself, for Justice Antonin Scalia. "Because they get 'adopted' by a sitting justice, they actually get to build a strong personal connection with two justices. There are certainly advantages to that kind of position."

Josh Deahl, a 2006 Michigan Law graduate who clerked recently for Justice O'Connor, agrees.

"Justice O'Connor stays very busy," said Deahl, now an appellate attorney in the D.C. Public Defender's Office. "She sat with four different circuits during my year, and I ended up traveling with her to Arizona, Chicago, Florida, and New York."

Those journeys ended in some interesting ways, Deahl added. The retired justice, who owns an old adobe clay house in Arizona, once invited a group of tuxedo- and gown-wearing state luminaries to help her maintain the home—by flinging a new coat of mud over it.

"She's got a great personality," Deahl said. "She's one of those people you meet and kind of immediately feel like you're an amateur at conversation. You also feel that she's immensely more interested in things you have to say than she should be."

You might think accompanying Justice O'Connor to throw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field, or helping her prepare for a memorable interview with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show," would provide enough memories for one year. But there was plenty going on in Washington, as well.

It wasn't all petition-reading, either. After he was "adopted" as a fifth clerk in Justice Anthony Kennedy's chambers, Deahl said, he took on a fifth of the workload in those chambers, as well. About a third of the work was in the "cert pool," helping the justice decide which cases would be heard. Another third of the work involved helping the justices prepare for argument, which meant going over the cases the justices agreed to hear—about three per month per clerk—and preparing a bench memo for Justice Kennedy on each one.

"That's his preparation for oral argument," Deahl said. "And after arguments, he'll gather all five clerks together and share his sense of things, and his sense of how he wants to vote."

Then, after the vote is taken and the opinions have been assigned to individual justices, the final third of a clerk's work begins: writing the first draft of the opinions that were assigned to his or her justice.

"At the end of the day, Justice Kennedy writes about 15 opinions per term," Deahl said—about nine of them majority opinions.

Although there's lots of work, there's also lots of opportunity to socialize, Deahl said. Justice Kennedy's family of clerks, for example, challenged their counterparts from Chief Justice John Roberts' chambers to a volleyball match towards the end of the term. Naturally, the two justices found out about the upcoming match, and both took the match personally and teased whoever was involved about whose clerks would win.

It ended up being the Kennedy crew.

"Justice Kennedy arranged a tea and coffee service for the following morning," Deahl said. "The Chief surprised him with a trophy—complete with a volleyball head—which still sits in Kennedy's chambers today."

Deahl said he isn't sure what awaits Savit during his 2014 clerkship—but he knows it won't disappoint.

Savit, who already has clerked for two for two Court of Appeals judges—Judge Carlos Bea of the Ninth Circuit and Judge David Tatel of the D.C. Circuit—agreed. He's now with Williams & Connolly in Washington, but he also spent two years in the Bronx with Teach for America—so he's particularly excited about helping Justice O'Connor promote civics education, one of the justice's top priorities since she retired from the Court.

"She uses computer games to show how different branches of government work, or how to argue cases in court—there are a dozen games right now that kids can play," Savit said. "I'm sure it's going to be a really exciting and incredibly busy year."

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