It has long been the case that a judicial clerkship in the chambers of a U.S. Supreme Court justice is among the most coveted positions for young attorneys. The clerkship experience on the High Court is itself prized, and there is no denying that such a position opens the door wide for opportunity in the years beyond, whether in federal or state government, in academia and in the nation’s most prestigious law firms, as well as in the state and federal judiciary.
A significant proportion of Supreme Court clerks boast previous clerkships in the federal Court of Appeals, and modern studies have taken note of so-called “feeder judges,” who regularly provide Justices with clerks for their chambers. See, e.g., William E. Nelson, et al., The Liberal Tradition of the Supreme Court Clerkship: Its Rise, Fall, and Reincarnation?, 62 Vand. L. Rev. 1749 (Nov. 2009) (PDF).
Examination of sitting and recent Justices reveals that the tradition of feeder judges appears to be alive and well at the High Court. The most prolific courts that place clerks on the Supreme Court are the D.C. Circuit, Second Circuit, Ninth Circuit, Fourth Circuit and Seventh Circuit. Considered overall, the Sixth Circuit does not place as many Supreme Court clerks, but, in recent years, it has been sending a greater proportion of clerks to the Supreme Court than ever before.
Over the past few decades, several judges on the Sixth Circuit have promoted clerks to the High Court. In the early 1980s, Judge Merritt provided a clerk to Chief Justice Burger. In the 1990s, Justice Kennedy obtained a clerk from Judge Guy’s chambers, and the late Judge Nelson also provided a clerk to the High Court, shared between retired Chief Justice Burger and incoming Justice Thomas. Most recently, Judge Boggs provided a clerk for Justice Thomas, and Judge Kethledge, a more recent appointee, has also sent a clerk to the Supreme Court, specifically to Justice Scalia’s chambers.
But, of the Sixth Circuit’s judges, far and away the most prolific is Judge Sutton. Judge Sutton was himself a Supreme Court clerk, having served in the chambers of Justices Scalia and Powell in 1991-92 after completing an appellate clerkship with Judge Meskill of the Second Circuit. Since Judge Sutton was seated on the Sixth Circuit, eleven of his clerks have gone on to the High Court — a significant number even when compared to the most prolific “feeder judges” of the past few decades. Judge Sutton’s former clerks have clerked for Chief Justice Roberts (1 clerk), Justice Scalia (6 clerks), Justice Kennedy (1 clerk), Justice Alito (2 clerks) and Justice Kagan (1 clerk). The connection between Judge Sutton’s chambers and that of his former employer, Justice Scalia, is clearly a strong one.
So while, viewed historically, the Sixth Circuit has not been as recognized for promoting clerks to the Supreme Court, the placements over the past decade provide reason to believe that the Justices are now looking, and will continue to look, at the Sixth Circuit for a new crop of the best and the brightest.