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December 17, 2018By Lori Atherton
Kurt Johnson, ’15, will start the new year looking forward to a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship with Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch. Johnson’s one-year clerkship is for the October 2019 term. He will start the job next summer.
“I’m of course beyond excited to have the chance to clerk for the Justice,” said Johnson, who is a litigation associate in the Washington, D.C., office of Sidley Austin LLP. “It will be fascinating to see how the Supreme Court makes its decisions, and how the justices individually and collectively think about the law. The training and experience that I’ll get from Justice Gorsuch is going to be invaluable.”
Johnson is the latest in a long line of Michigan Law alumni who have clerked for the high court. Since 1991, Michigan Law graduates—Johnson included—have accepted 36 Supreme Court clerkships, according to Greta Trakul, attorney-counselor and judicial clerkship adviser in Michigan Law’s Office of Career Planning.
At Michigan, Johnson’s interest in appellate law was piqued by his professors, particularly Julian Davis Mortenson, Eve Primus, ’01, Gil Seinfeld, and The Hon. Joan Larsen, who also was Johnson’s clerkship adviser. Johnson took Constitutional Law, Evidence, Federal Courts, and Criminal Procedure II with them, respectively. “They pushed me to ask the tough questions,” he said. “What tools do we use to interpret the law; does the law have it right; if the law doesn’t have right, does it need to be changed or is it more important to preserve stability; if the law does need to be changed, is that something for courts to do or Congress?”
Clerking wasn’t on Johnson’s radar when he came to law school. However, he was encouraged by his professors—especially Mortenson—to pursue a clerkship with The Hon. J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. It proved to be a wise decision. “Judge Wilkinson is an excellent judge and a gifted writer,” Johnson said. “He taught me a lot about good judging, as well as practical things like how to write a brief and tailor your advocacy in a way that makes judges receptive to your arguments. I know my time with Justice Gorsuch will prove to be just as rewarding.”
Since graduating three years ago, Johnson has been making his mark on the legal world, which doesn’t surprise Mortenson. “Kurt is an extraordinary legal talent and an exceptionally decent human being,” he said. “His brilliance in the classroom and curve-breaking exams were something to see. But what stands out most in retrospect is his thoughtfulness, kindness, and good will. It’s just wonderful to see this opportunity becoming a reality for someone who so thoroughly exemplifies the Michigan difference.”
Johnson said he owes his success “almost entirely” to the people who have supported and mentored him. “I never imagined I would get these kinds of opportunities; so much is due to the people from Michigan who introduced me to life in the law,” Johnson said. In addition to his Michigan Law professors and Judge Wilkinson, Johnson thanks his Sidley colleagues for helping him prepare for his interview with Justice Gorsuch. And he is grateful to his wife, Lisa, who is by far his most ardent supporter. “During my 1L year, I’d come home and want to talk about what I had learned in Property and Torts; my wife would listen as I explained the difference between strict liability and negligence or whatever, and then she’d ask ‘but why,’ ‘what if,’ ‘so that means…,’ etc.,” Johnson said. “It really forced me to learn the material. So she deserves a lot of credit. I’m thankful to have had so many who have helped me along the way.”
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