Professor Suk Explains How to Clerk for the Supreme Court


A mix of all class years gathered in Pound 108 Monday evening to hear Professor Jeannie Suk share stories about her experience as a Supreme Court clerk and tips for the application process. In the end, she described it as an arbitrary process and recommended that people apply multiple times, since people have been accepted on the third and fourth applications.

Kirsten Solberg of the Office of Career Services began the event by stressing the necessity of a U.S. Court of Appeals clerkship as a prerequisite to applying to the Supreme Court. After a quick tour of the OCS clerkships website, she introduced Professor Suk, who clerked for Judge Harry Edwards of the D.C. Circuit before going on to clerk on the high court for Justice David Souter.

Suk began nostalgically, recounting the many groundbreaking cases the court had during the 2003 term, such as the Pledge of Allegiance case, Elk Grove v. Newdow, and the trio of war on terror detainee cases, Hamdi, Rasul, and Padilla. She emphasized the close friendships she formed during her clerkship.

“It’s an experience unrivaled in its excitement and its intensity,” she said. “You eat and breathe and sleep the work. And because you can’t talk to people outside, you go crazy and you become close with the people who you work with. Those 35 other people become close friends.”

Clerks also become close with the justices. Suk recounted how at the end of each term, Justice Souter gives each of his clerks a picture of himself and signs it “From your life long client.”

She reveled in the freedom she had to explore the building and interact with the justices, and spoke with sadness of the day she had to turn in her keys and identification.

“You never say to yourself, what a drag, I have to go to work today,” she said. “It seems magical and unreal…a big marble palace with beautiful everything. As a clerk, you have the run of the building…You’ll never be allowed to walk around as you want again. It’s a great privilege to be privy to the work of the court.”

It is important to work well with others as a clerk, said Suk, because you need to be able to talk with the other clerks about how their justices are thinking, and you have to work on a close basis with all of the staff in chambers.

“They want to choose clerks who will get along with everyone in chambers,” said Suk. “They care about how well liked you are by your peers.”

Suk divided the work of the court into three categories: certiorari petitions, death penalty work, and cases on the merits. There are thousands of cert petitions to the court each year, which are divided evenly among the justices’ chambers, except for Justice Stevens’s clerks, who review all of the cases, dividing them among his 4 clerks.

“You have to get it right,” she warned. “The justices rely on the clerks to sort through the legal issues, and if you get [something like] jurisdiction wrong, it can be terrible. And that happens.”

She characterized the death penalty work as an emotionally taxing part of the job. Once or twice a week, when an execution is about to take place, a clerk is designated to review the case documents, write a memo to the justices, and wait for their life or death votes. “You’re getting all the votes in and you know at the end of the day that without 5 votes, the defendant is executed,” she said. “It gets very exhausting.”

The final group of cases, those on the merits, are the most well-known and exciting. The Court typically hears fewer than 100 a year. Clerks divide up those cases, taking

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