If you’re not a lawyer, you may not be that familiar with law clerks. The title sounds very…well, clerical. But make no mistake, they are very powerful people who are largely unknown to clients but who are in the room with their judges, often every step of the way. As Wikipedia tells us:
A law clerk or a judicial clerk is an individual—generally an attorney—who provides direct assistance and counsel to a judge in making legal determinations and in writing opinions by researching issues before the court. Judicial clerks often play significant roles in the formation of case law through their influence upon judges’ decisions.
Yet, we know virtually nothing about them from the outside. If your case is heard, wouldn’t you want to know about everyone who was influencing the outcome of your case?
There are ethical rules that cover judicial clerks, such as Maintaining the Public Trust: Ethics For Federal Judicial Law Clerks issued by the Judicial Conference Committee on Codes of Conduct which admonishes clerks that the rules apply to them, too:
During your clerkship, you will provide valuable assistance as your judge resolves disputes that are of great importance to the parties, and often to the public. The parties and the public accept judges’ rulings because they trust the system to be fair and impartial. Maintaining this trust is crucial to the continued success of our courts. That’s why, although you have many responsibilities that demand your attention, you must never lose sight of your ethical obligations.
While that all sounds good, how would anyone ever know exactly what the story is with the clerks who are writing opinions with their judge or justice that directly affect the outcome of your case. As the ethical rules clearly state:
Although many of your obligations are the same as those of other federal judicial employees, certain restrictions are more stringent because of your special position in relation to the judge. Some obligations continue after your service to the court concludes.
But again–how would you ever know? If you go to the bible of the revolving door, Open Secrets, you’ll notice someone is missing…the entire judicial branch of our government.
Let’s take the easy one: Conflicts of interest. When does a law clerk have a conflict of interest? The rulebook tells us:
Canon 3F(1) of the Code of Conduct advises judicial employees, including law clerks, to avoid conflicts of interest. Conflicts arise when you—or your spouse or other close relative—might be so personally or financially affected by a matter that a reasonable person would question your impartiality.
Note the disjunct: “personally or financially affected.” Either can give rise to a conflict or a question as to the clerk’s impartiality.
Conflicts come in several flavors, but two biggies are actual conflicts and potential conflicts, very routine inquiries in any conflict check. The ethical rules for clerks give examples of each: For example, an actual conflict is “The firm where you plan to work after your clerkship serves as counsel in a matter before your judge”. “Firm” in this case presumably applies to the situation where a company where the clerk plans to work appears before the judge.
A potential conflict includes “An attorney you met and talked with at a social function appears to argue a motion before your judge.” It’s not a far reach to think that the example would include a former professor, amicus, or author of an amicus brief filed or to be filed in a case before your judge.
But the point is, how would the litigants ever know any of these situations were an issue. Who keeps track of who knows whom among the clerks cloistered away in the ivory tower?
Let’s take a concrete example from the Above the Law Supreme Court Watch blog which handicaps U.S. Supreme Court clerk hires:
Joshua Revesz (Yale 2017/Garland) will be clerking for Justice Kagan in OT 2020. If his distinctive surname rings a bell, perhaps you’ve heard of his famous father: Professor Richard “Ricky” Revesz, former Dean of NYU Law School, and a former Supreme Court clerk (OT 1984/Marshall).
Readers of ARW may also recognize the name from a different place: The deep and abiding controversy over the American Law Institute’s failing Restatement of Copyright project. Professor Revesz joined the ALI in 2014 right after the noted Lowery insulter, Spotify lawyer, Lessig mentee and all round anti-copyright advocate Christopher Jon Sprigman joined the NYU faculty in 2013, presumably under then-Dean Richard Revesz.
Somehow–we don’t know exactly how–of all the lawyers in all the world, how ALI Director Revesz chose Professor Sprigman to run the Restatement of Copyright project, an undertaking that by all reports is devoted to weakening copyright and expanding loopholes for Big Tech. How do we know this? Because Sprigman pitched Revesz on the idea very soon after Revesz took over at ALI.
And the rest is history with everyone from authors to the Congress criticizing the very idea of a Restatement of Copyright; indeed, Professor Peter Menell of the UC Berkeley law school and Professor Shyamkrishna Balganesh of Columbia law school wrote an extensive critique that “explains why perfunctory extension of the common law Restatement model to copyright law produces incoherent, misleading and seemingly biased results that risks undermining the legitimacy of the eventual product.” (“The Curious Case of the Restatement of Copyright“). In other words–it’s bad.
It will come as no surprise that I would go further–I think that is exactly the purpose of the Restatement (and Professor Samuelson’s Copyright Principles Project it descends from).
Hold on, you say–what does this have to do with Clerk Revesz and his judge, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, the former Dean of Harvard Law School (whose remarks at the 10 year anniversary celebration of the Berkman Center are illuminating (home to both Lessig and poker aficionado and alleged counsel to copyright infringer Mr. Tennenbaum, Charles Nesson)). Maybe nothing.
But isn’t it the kind of thing you might want to know about someone who was in close contact with someone who was deciding the outcome of your case? Or was in close contact with other clerks who were deciding the outcome of your case? How would you ever know what contacts the clerks had with anyone who might be influencing their case or who had donated money to an institution that benefited the family member of someone who had influence over your case? Either directly, over cocktail party conversation or the dinner table? I am not implying any skulduggery here, it could all have been very innocent or appear so as conflicts often do.
Did it happen? We don’t know, because when we go to Open Secrets there’s no judicial branch disclosure. Now certainly judges have to file public financial disclosures. (That’s how we knew about Judge Ware’s employment by Santa Clara Law School when he presided over the Google Buzz cy pres and ordered $500,000 be given to that university–“now-retired federal district judge James Ware rewrote the settlement to direct $500,000 to Santa Clara Law School, where he taught. The money went to fund a center for ethics.”)
While their judges are obligated to public financial disclosures, clerks do not have such obligations to litigants, much less to the public. Disposition of conflicts disclosed by clerks seem to be handled in chambers without consulting the litigants.
Given the number of clerks in chambers across the country, the possibility for conflicts are significant. When a lawyer has a conflict of interest that is waivable, she must give the client the option to waive the conflict with informed consent. But if the conflict is not waivable or the client refuses to waive, the lawyer must decline the representation.
Is there a corollary for law clerks? There definitely are rules and there definitely are processes. But are the litigants ever asked if they consent to a conflicted clerk working on their case?
I’ve never heard of it. Maybe there should be such a process.