Supreme Court Clerks, Ten Years Later

A decade ago last week, I left the Volokh Conspiracy and took a leave of absence from teaching to be a law clerk for Justice Kennedy. Over at Excess of Democracy, lawprof Derek Muller looks at what that year of law clerks is up to 10 years later. (Yeah, I’m not sure why anyone other than the 35 of us would be interested, either. But Derek blogged on it first, so please indulge me.) Of the 35 former clerks, 14 are law professors, 12 are at law firms, 5 work at DOJ, 2 work at public interest organizations, and 2 are employed by large companies.

As Derek notes, there are some interesting trends based on ideology, too. Consider the career paths of the 16 who clerked for what we might call the liberal-ish Justices (Stevens, Souter, Breyer and Ginsburg). In my experience, all of the 16 members of that group are identifiably left-of-center. Of the group, 9 of the 16 are academics and 8 of the 9 are at “Top 14” schools. You see a different path with the 19 who clerked for conservative-ish Justices (Rehnquist, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas). They tended to be a more politically diverse group, with probably about 70% identifiably right-of-center. Of the 19 clerks in that group, only 6 became academics and only 1 of the 6 is at a “Top 14” school.

That finding is more or less consistent with an earlier article on the career paths of Supreme Court clerks, The Liberal Tradition of the Supreme Court Clerkship: Its Rise, Fall, and Reincarnation by William E. Nelson, Harvey Rishikof, I. Scott Messinger, and Michael Jo. As summarized by Adam Liptak in the Times back in 2009, the article found that

[o]nly 19 percent of clerks from the four most conservative justices in recent decades joined the legal academy and only 7 percent went to one of the top 10 law schools in the annual survey published by U.S. News & World Report. A significant minority joined the faculties of religious or conservative law schools. Clerks for the other five justices followed the historical pattern, with 34 percent joining the legal academy, about half of them at the elite schools.

For my earlier coverage of the Nelson et. al. article, see here.