'It Never Got Old'
Christopher Mills reflects on his clerkship with Justice Clarence Thomas
Published in 2022 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine on April 29, 2022
During his interview for a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in the fall of 2018, Christopher Mills bonded with the Savannah-raised justice about his beloved hometown of Charleston.
“He wanted to know about my family and growing up in the Lowcountry,” Mills recalls. “We talked about how his family would come to the beaches outside Hilton Head on vacation when he was growing up. We talked about the Gullah traditions along the coast running all the way through Savannah. He said he thought Savannah was better than Charleston, and we agreed to disagree on that.”
What surprised Mills, though, was Thomas’ manner. “You have this image of judges as being detached and very academic. He is just so down-to-earth and friendly. He was nothing like the silent image that is often portrayed,” Mills says. “I tend to be an introvert, and Justice Thomas has said he is an introvert as well. But he’s very easy to talk to and very kind.”
Two weeks later, Mills got the job. “I was excited to get the chance to spend a year with such a principled, thoughtful judge. I had obviously read his book, My Grandfather’s Son, and his story is one that could really only happen in America,” Mills says.
“It never got old walking up the steps of the Supreme Court to go to work every day.”
The weight of the role—needing to produce perfect work every day, ensuring every citation was correct and each sentence was written as to not confuse the law—was not lost on him. “It really gave the job a sense of gravity and importance and made me want to do my absolute best to help the justice fulfill the oath he took for the Constitution,” Mills says.
A typical day for Mills and the other clerks involved going through all cert petitions on behalf of the justices. The court receives thousands of petitions per year but can only hear about 70 cases, and it is a lengthy process to narrow them down. The clerks also worked on cases the court granted cert on, researching and making recommendations on resolutions.
“The four of us clerks didn’t agree all the time when we looked at cases and considered arguments. At the end of the day, [Justice Thomas] makes the final call about how we’re going to move forward, and at that point, my job was to make the best argument in support of that position that I could,” Mills says.
Mills recalls Thomas put a heavy emphasis on what the public would have understood the words to mean at the time they were written, whether for a statute or the U.S. Constitution.
“One of the really interesting aspects of my job was trying to figure out what the founders and public in 1787 would have understood some of these big phrases to mean, whether it was ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’ or the excessive fines clause in the Eighth Amendment,” Mills says. “Part of the unique aspect working for an originalist like Justice Thomas … was digging up old English cases and founding-era documents and trying to figure out what the words meant at the time.”
After the clerkship, Mills and his wife, Carley, returned to the Charleston area, where they now live with their daughter, Grady, 4, and son, Charlie, 2. He was a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, then a constitutional law fellow at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, before opening his own practice, Spero Law, in February 2021. “Being a solo practice gives you flexibility and lets you take cases that are important to you and meaningful. For me, that’s helped give me a sense of purpose in what I’m doing,” he says.
His recent work includes serving as special counsel to Gov. Henry McMaster and, for the past two years, as an adjunct professor at Charleston School of Law. In one class, Thomas agreed to speak with the students via Zoom and answer their questions about his 30 years on the Supreme Court.
“What better way to learn about the Supreme Court than talking to one of the justices?” Mills says. “He is kind and thoughtful and interestingly joyful. He just loves what he does and loved spending time with us. The chance to play a small role in helping him fulfill what he saw as his duty to the Constitution was just a dream come true.”