What does a Supreme Court clerk do?

Clerking for a Supreme Court justice is apparently a very prestigious thing to have on one’s law resume. What exactly do these clerks do? How many clerks does each justice have at any one time? How long do clerks typically stay in their positions?

File, fetch coffee, pick up dry-cleaned robes?

Each justice is allowed to have up to four clerks, except the Chief Justice who gets five.

The primary job of the clerks is research. When a justice is assigned an opinion to write, she will have her clerks organize all the relevant information, deconstruct arguments from briefs and oral testimony and amicus sources, develop the legal framework for the opinion, and assist in drafting the opinion.

ETA: I believe clerks are hired for one term only.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the clerks write the opinions. The Justices themselves do very little, if any, actual writing.

That depends on the Justice. Some are more involved than others.

Whose term? Supreme Court Justices get appointed for life.

A term of the court - October through July.

One term of the Court, i.e., one year.

One of my ConLaw professors (the late Stephen Goldberg) clerked on the Supreme Court, for Justice Brennan IIRC. It’s getting near the end of the term and there’s a lot of work still to be done, so Brennan writes the first circulation draft of a particular opinion. (Usually, a clerk drafts the opinion, the justice marks it up, the clerk reworks it, and that’s what is circulated to the other chambers.) A couple days later, my Goldberg is having lunch with a clerk from another justice’s chambers, who says that everybody’s raving about this opinion. It’s the best-written product any of them have seen all year, and did Goldberg know who wrote it?

Goldberg responded “I had something to do with it.”


All Article III federal judges are entitiled to hire law clerks to assist them in their duties; two for District Judges, three for Circuit Court of Appeal Justices, four for U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices, and five for the Chief Justice. They can generally have one more clerk if they forego a secretary or one extra secretary if they forego a clerk, but most stick with that formula. Law clerks generally serve a one or two year term, but some judges have permanent “career clerks.”

Being a law clerk is much like being an assistant judge. Federal judicial law clerks research and write memoranda, opinions and orders; how much of the writing is done by the law clerk is up to the judge or justice, and usually varies from assignment to assignment. Some judges and justices will insist on writing the initial opinion themselves, have the clerks do the rewrites, and do the final rewrites themselves, while others will do just the reverse and have the clerks do the initial drafts and finish them up themselves. Supposedly among the current Supreme Court Justices only Scalia insists on writing his own first drafts. For more mundane opinions and orders (especially in the lower courts), it’s not at all uncommon for the judge or justice to have the law clerk do all the research on the matter, decide which way the issue should be decided and write the opinion or order in its entirety, with the judge only making changes here and there or even just signing off on it as is if he or she is satisfied with it.

Former law clerks can generally be identified by their charm, wit and good looks. :wink: