Charades in the High Court
And more of Jim Strain’s memories of being a SCOTUS clerk
Published in 2017 Indiana Super Lawyers magazine on February 15, 2017
“Justice Rehnquist saved me from New York,” says Jim Strain.
In the early 1970s, Strain was practicing with a New York-based firm and was hoping for a change when President Nixon nominated William Rehnquist to the U.S. Supreme Court. “One of my law professors, Bill Oliver, had been a law clerk at the same time that Rehnquist was a law clerk. They used to play poker together,” Strain says. So Oliver called Strain and asked permission to nominate him for a clerkship.
“What do you say to that?” Strain says. “‘Of course.’“
Thinking it was a long shot, Strain traveled to Washington, D.C., for an interview in February 1972. A 45-minute conversation with then-Associate Justice Rehnquist led to a job offer a month later. Strain began working for the justice in September, although his term didn’t officially begin until October.
The Justice’s unique talents quickly became apparent to Strain, who recalls Rehnquist reciting a 1961 civil rights opinion verbatim. “When he was nominated for the court, [he] began reading U.S. Reports cases from the latest backward. He had a photographic memory and a great analytical mind. You combine those two things and you are dealing with a formidable brain—you don’t want to screw up.”
Rehnquist was also personable. Strain recalls fondly how he, Rehnquist and the two other law clerks would convene each day for a brief afternoon chat. “We bought him an espresso machine for his birthday, so we would have espresso and he would eat vanilla wafers,” says Strain. “The Boss—as we called him—was a good conversationalist and had a broad range of interests; it was always fun and engaging.”
Strain has fond memories of annual reunions and impromptu get-togethers with Rehnquist and his wife, Nan, as well as several former law clerks. “[The Rehnquists] were very human people and nice to the clerks. They would throw parties—an informal barbecue, pingpong, and all that kind of stuff,” says Strain.
At one reunion, a clerk gave Rehnquist a Lone Ranger doll with an attached sign that read, “The Lone Dissenter”—a nod to the justice’s nickname. “He certainly took it in good humor,” recalls Strain.
The Rehnquists were also fond of lively rounds of charades. At one gathering, Rehnquist started the evening with a bawdy charade based on the William Tell Overture. The following year, Nan acted out “the birth of a nation” on the floor of the Supreme Court’s Ladies Dining Room.
Following Rehnquist’s advice, Strain, a Bloomington native, returned to his home state after the clerkship. “Justice Rehnquist said that too many former law clerks are like moths to a light and want to stay in D.C.,” he says. “He advised his clerks to go back to [their] hometown and make a difference.”
Now a partner at Taft Stettinius & Hollister in Indianapolis and one of Indiana’s top securities lawyers, he still uses lessons he learned from the justice. “I hope I learned to be as nice and gracious as he was. I certainly learned that you have to be prepared, and that careful use of the English language is important,” says Strain. At one point, when Strain used the word “fantastic” in conversation, Rehnquist challenged him. “He said to me, ‘Fantastic—of or pertaining to fantasy. Is that what you really mean?’ Obviously it was not,” says Strain with a laugh.
But Strain does have an accurate way to sum up his time at the high court. “It became,” he says, “like an extended family. He treated us very much like family. He was a very sweet man.”