By Phil Weiser
Working at the Supreme Court was an incredible experience, allowing me to learn from two legends, Justices White and Ginsburg. In this article, I will share what I learned from working with Justice Byron White.
In the summer of 1994, I moved to Colorado after graduating law school to work for Judge David Ebel, who serves on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Just before I began my job as a law clerk to Judge Ebel, the Tenth Circuit moved into the Byron White Courthouse, where Justice Byron White kept his summer chambers. I met him shortly after I started working in the building that bears his name.
The following spring, Justice White hired me as his law clerk for the upcoming year’s term of the Supreme Court. At the time, Justice White was a retired Justice and joined a federal court of appeals for a single sitting—that is, hearing a week’s cases. As such, he only hired one clerk and lent that clerk out to an active judge. In my case, he agreed to share me with his successor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Justice Byron White was a true giant in the law and in politics—a Supreme Court Justice for over thirty years, Bobby Kennedy’s right-hand man (and Deputy Attorney General) at the Justice Department, and a leading figure in Colorado’s legal community. He graduated first in his class at Yale Law School while taking time out to play NFL football, where he led the league in rushing. Former Supreme Court Justice and Yale Law classmate Potter Stewart (famous for suggesting the “I know it when I see it” test for obscene materials) related that Justice White was both “Clark Kent and Superman.”
Justice White never forgot where he came from or let his success go to his head. Born in Wellington, Colorado, he grew up in a farming community where people were struggling. He said of his childhood, “The farmers weren’t making much money. There was very little money around Wellington, and I suppose you could say by the normal standards of today we were all quite poor, although we didn’t necessarily feel poor because everyone was more or less the same.” For Justice White, his humility came from his humble beginnings that he never forgot. And one important lesson that he demonstrated by example is that there is no excuse for arrogance, no matter how successful you are.
Justice White valued relationships, and he and his wife Marion welcomed his law clerks into their family. He was clear with me that when he hired law clerks, he was not solely focused on traditional academic credentials. He also cared about what kind of people his clerks were and how they related to others—what we might call “emotional intelligence,” or “EQ.” As such, he hired graduates from a range of law schools, enabling people like me to have an opportunity to work at the Supreme Court. Most Justices, by contrast, hired disproportionately (almost exclusively in some cases) from Harvard and Yale. The lesson in Justice White’s selection process is that pure IQ can be overrated, and EQ can be underrated.
Finally, I continue to carry with me Justice White’s professionalism and attention to detail. Judge David Ebel, who hired me to work with him on the Tenth Circuit and had clerked for Justice White years before, put this lesson succinctly, “I am not afraid of what I don’t know; I am afraid of what I think I know.” At an oral argument in one of the cases Justice White heard during my clerkship, the lawyer arguing the case (who clearly knew the issues very well) said to Justice White, “Excuse me, Justice, but this is my first case and I am nervous.” Justice White replied, “Stay nervous, counsel.” And I have carried that wise advice—and Justice White’s counsel to remain careful and be professional in whatever you do—with me throughout my career.
As I campaign across our great state to be Colorado’s next Attorney General, I know that Justice White would be proud of this career move. Justice White appreciated those willing to step into the arena and to serve the public, particularly by running for office. As I take on this new challenge, the lessons I learned from Justice White—about humility, about relationships, and about professionalism—guide me on this journey. They will also inspire me to be the best Attorney General I can be if elected to the position.
Phil Weiser is Dean Emeritus and the Hatfield Professor of Law at the University of Colorado Law School. He also previously served as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the US Department of Justice and as Senior Advisor for Technology and Innovation in the White House under President Barack Obama. He is currently a Democratic candidate for Colorado Attorney General. To learn more about Phil Weiser, see http://philforcolorado.com