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Clerking for the Supremes

Three recent Northwestern law school graduates are playing ball in the highest court in the land.

It was a dull afternoon last December when Andrianna Kastanek (WCAS01, L05) answered the phone and the voice at the other end of the line said, "This is Justice Anthony Kennedy. We would love it if you joined us in Washington for a year."

"Your heart kind of stops beating for a second," she says, remembering the call.

Kastanek accepted the justice's offer of a clerkship, one of the most sought-after jobs in the legal community, and this fall begins work in Washington, D.C. She's not the only Northwestern School of Law alumna to make it to the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court this year.

After an application process that began more than a year ago, two other recent law school graduates also earned clerkships. During the 2007–08 term, Jessica Phillips (WCAS02, L06) and Katherine Shaw (L06) will clerk for Justices Samuel Alito and John Paul Stevens (L47, H77), respectively. (Kastanek, Phillips and Shaw are not the first Northwestern trio to clerk in the Supreme Court in the same year. John Kelsh [L96], Wendy Stone [L95] and Chris Yoo [L95] clerked during the Court's 1997–98 judicial term. See "Inside the Chambers," spring 1999.)

Steven Calabresi, the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern, works with the law school to encourage top students to apply for Supreme Court clerkships, and he says he identified the three women as potential candidates early on. Calabresi was a former Supreme Court clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia.

Only 37 clerks are chosen each year, and they most often come from top law schools.

During a yearlong term, the clerks write memos to the justices about applications for writ of certiorari — petitions asking the justices to review cases from the lower courts. They discuss the cases with the justices and help recommend which cases should be granted cert, or added to the docket. Four of the nine justices must agree for a case to earn a spot on the docket. Clerks also do research to advise their respective justices on the facts in the cases.

During the 2005 term 8,521 cases were filed in the Supreme Court, but only 87 were argued. Without clerks, the court's ever-increasing caseload would be impossible for the justices to handle.

It's significant that the three Northwestern clerks are female. Women held just seven of the 37 clerkships for the term beginning in 2006, and Kastanek, Phillips and Shaw are three of 14 women in the 2007–08 term. "Given the historical underrepresentation of women at the court, I'm especially proud that my Northwestern colleagues are women," says Kastanek, who served as a leader of Northwestern law school's Women's Leadership Coalition.

Calabresi says the work the three alumnae have done since graduation has given them training for the court.

All three women clerked on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals before moving to Washington, D.C. Shaw clerked for Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit in Chicago. Kastanek clerked for Judge Kenneth Ripple of the 7th Circuit in South Bend, Ind., and then worked for Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw in Chicago. Phillips clerked for Judge Joel Flaum (L63, GL64) of the 7th Circuit in Chicago and had been accepted as Justice Alito's clerk in 2005 while Alito was a 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge. However, before she could work for him, Alito was nominated to the Supreme Court. After his confirmation, Alito encouraged Phillips to update her resume and apply for the Supreme Court clerkship.

Phillips' father, Carter Phillips (G75, L77), clerked on the 7th Circuit before clerking for former Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger. Carter Phillips has since argued 54 cases before the Supreme Court — an extraordinary 45 of them while in private practice. (He received a Service Award from the Northwestern Alumni Association in 2006 and a Merit Award in 1998.)

Given her family history, "Jessica probably knows more about the nuts and bolts of the court than almost anyone else," her father says. "I still get goose bumps every time I walk into that courtroom," he adds. "It's like no other building for a lawyer."

And it might be the building that has Kastanek's family just as excited. "My parents are excited to get a tour of the court," she says, "and the basketball court above the Supreme Court — the highest court in the land."

— Christopher Danzig (J08)

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