Supreme Court Clerks and Their Justices
No other law school has produced more Supreme Court Justices than Harvard Law School (HLS), and that distinction has allowed HLS to shape the law not just approaching the bench, but behind it.
The well-trod path between HLS and the Court connects the two on multiple levels. Many HLS graduates have clerked for the Court and then returned to HLS to teach. A select number of those alumni have gone on to become Justices and, in turn, employed HLS students as clerks.
This cycle can be traced back to 1882, the first year of a remarkable era, in which there has been a continuous streak of at least one Justice on the Court who attended HLS. That streak continues to this day.
Horace Gray (LL. B. 1849), was the first judge in the United States, at any level, to hire a clerk - a young HLS graduate by the name of Louis Dembitz Brandeis. When Gray was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1882, he again initiated the practice, hiring Thomas Russell (LL.B. 1882) as the first clerk for the Supreme Court. Justice Gray paid his first three clerks from private funds until the Attorney General of the United States made a recommendation that each Justice should be able to hire a clerk. In the meantime, Justice Gray's brother, HLS Professor John Chipman Gray, began to regularly identify promising students and recommend them to clerkships.
Justice Gray's fourth clerk, Samuel Williston (LL.B. 1888), became the first Supreme Court clerk to later serve on the HLS faculty. Another of Gray’s clerks, Ezra Ripley Thayer (LL.B. 1891), was the first Supreme Court clerk to later serve as HLS Dean. Jumping to present day, Stephen Breyer (LL.B. 1964), was the first alumnus to clerk for the Supreme Court, serve as a HLS faculty member, and then become a Supreme Court Justice. Elena Kagan (J.D. 1986) stands alone as a HLS alumna who clerked for a Supreme Court Justice, served on the HLS faculty and as HLS Dean, before becoming a Supreme Court Justice. With the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch (J.D. 1991), we have crossed another history-making threshold, marking the first time a Supreme Court Justice has served alongside a Justice for whom he clerked (Justice Anthony Kennedy, LL.B. 1961).
The Honor of Appointment
Appointment to the United States Supreme Court is often viewed as perhaps the crowning achievement of an individual’s legal career. Since 1851, 21 Harvard Law School alumni/ae have been fortunate enough to receive this honor. From 1882 to the present, there has been at least one justice on the Court who attended Harvard Law School.
Harvard Law School student to Supreme Court clerk
Clerking for a Supreme Court justice can be both a rewarding and an all-consuming job. The earliest clerks were akin to personal secretaries taking dictation and providing stenographic services. The role has evolved and today’s clerks conduct legal research, draft bench memos, and write opinions.