A Song for Justice O’Connor

Brett Busby clerked—and played violin—for the Supreme Court

Published in 2009 Texas Rising Stars magazine

By Erin Gulden on March 13, 2009


Ten years ago, Brett Busby got a call that would change the course of his law career.

“[Retired Supreme Court] Justice Byron White called me in for a clerkship interview,” Busby says.

He got the job and ended up with a newfound calling in appellate law, and an appreciation of the justices’ value of court procedure over partisan politics. He even met Erin, his future wife, a young Harvard Law grad and clerk. But Busby, 35, a lifelong violinist, never expected that the Supreme Court clerkship would lead to the most thrilling experience of his musical career.

It all started, says Busby, when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found out that he played the violin (which included a two-year stint with the Duke Symphony Orchestra). Justice O’Connor invited Busby to meet her friend—a doctor who collected rare violins. During that meeting, Justice O’Connor asked Busby to play at the dress rehearsal for her husband’s musical birthday party.

Busby was rusty, so he went home and practiced. And it was a good thing he did, since, the next day at the rehearsal, the violin-collecting friend allowed Busby to play both his Stradivarius and Guarneri del Gesù. “It was just about the greatest experience any violinist could have,” he says.

It was an auspicious start to what has been a successful career. The Texas native and Columbia Law grad worked at Hogan Dubose & Townsend and Mayer Brown before joining Bracewell & Giuliani in March 2008. According to partner Warren Harris, Busby was brought to the firm in part to strengthen “its ability to represent clients all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.” Just six years after leaving his clerkship, he made his way back to the highest court in the land—this time as a lawyer.

“The justices really enjoy being mentors,” says Busby, who clerked for Justice John Paul Stevens when he wasn’t assisting Justice White. “You are always learning something new, in a new area of law. Plus it was fun to work on the important cases of the day.”

When Busby’s own case, Day v. McDonough—which questioned whether a judge could, on his own motion, dismiss a habeas corpus petition based on a limitations defense that the other side had waived—went in front of the Court, Busby felt comfortable standing in front of the justices (Justice Stevens even gave him a slight smile). Arguing before the Court, he tried to remember the lessons learned during his clerking days.

“I was always struck how all the justices pay attention to the procedural issues,” Busby says. “They really pay attention to jurisdiction, and make sure they only reach issues they need to reach.” So when Busby narrowly lost his case in a 5-4 decision, he could focus on the positive. “I consider persuading the Court to take the case a major achievement,” he says.

Busby has since participated in several Supreme Court cases either as counsel for a party or through amicus briefs, including the recent landmark securities case Stoneridge Investment Partners, LLC v. Scientific-Atlanta, Inc. He even took his first case as a private practice lawyer to the Texas Supreme Court.

When he’s not in the courtroom or spending time with his wife and their 3-year-old daughter, Katie, he continues to play violin in the Houston Civic Symphony and promote musical education by sitting on the Houston Symphony board of directors. After all, he jokes, no matter where his career goes, it might be hard to top his time spent in the Supreme Court—much less with Justice O’Connor, her friends and a few million dollars’ worth of violins.

“It was an incredible experience,” Busby says. “I’m glad Justice White made the call.”

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