Tea With Ginsburg, Hiking With O’Connor

Two attorneys reminisce about their year clerking or the U.S. Supreme Court

Published in 2016 Southern California Rising Stars — July 2016

On a cold, early morning in late 2004, a throng of people surrounded the U.S. Supreme Court building, some with tape covering their mouths, imploring the court to take on the controversial Terri Schiavo end-of-life case. 

Katherine H. Ku, a clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was struck by the stark contrast between the political noise outside and the calm collegiality inside. 

“You might think there would be a sharp tone between the colleagues on the Court with different political views,” says Ku, now a corporate partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson. “But the justices demonstrated that you could be engaged in the highest level of jurisprudence and maintain open dialogues and collegiality. The same was true of the clerks.”

Ku had come to the Supreme Court directly from a clerkship with Alex Kozinski, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. Two other Kozinski clerks she served with—Theane Evangelis and Tara Kole—also wound up clerking at the U.S. Supreme Court in the same term: Evangelis with Sandra Day O’Connor and Kole with Antonin Scalia. 

“I don’t think that’s ever happened before—three clerks from the same appeals court judge going to the Supreme Court at the same time,” says Evangelis, now an appellate and general commercial litigation partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

Evangelis fondly recalls her interview for the clerkship. First, O’Connor scheduled it in Phoenix so Evangelis wouldn’t have to travel cross-country. Then O’Connor actually picked her up at the airport. The interview itself consisted of lunch, during which O’Connor asked about Evangelis’ hobbies and interests and what areas of law she thought were in “disarray.” “She was multifaceted and multitalented,” Evangelis says. “She took a great interest in her clerks’ lives.”

So much so that O’Connor would go to museums, movies and classical concerts with her clerks. “She, I and another clerk took aerobics together twice a week,” Evangelis says. “One time, Justice O’Connor led all the clerks on a hike together, and even packed sandwiches for us.”

Similarly, Ku says her interview with Ginsburg was a tea that seemed more conversational than confrontational. “We chatted for 20 minutes,” Ku says. “At that point, she was assessing your collegiality and desire to do the clerkship as opposed to your qualifications.”

In that spirit, all of the justices would hold lunches and get-togethers for their colleagues’ clerks. Ginsburg would have teas with cakes prepared by her husband, Martin Ginsburg, a tax attorney and an accomplished chef and baker, who died in 2010. “They had such a fun, supportive relationship, and they extended that sense of fun and hospitality to their clerks,” Ku says.

Evangelis would stay up well after midnight discussing death penalty cases with O’Connor. “Justice O’Connor was meticulous and expected the clerks to do great work,” she says. “She would discuss and debate issues with me and my co-clerks, often playing devil’s advocate. She wanted to hear from all sides and bring in everyone’s perspective to be sure we considered every possible argument.”

Though Ginsburg regularly conversed with her clerks, most of her communications were in written form. “She is an excellent writer with an incredibly distinctive writing style,” Ku says. “You might expect her writing style to be academic, but it’s not. She has carefully chosen words and cadences.”

What struck both women most were the personal moments: how the justices took their role as mentor as seriously as their judicial roles. “I think about advice Justice O’Connor gave me all the time,” Evangelis says. “She’d say, ‘Don’t doubt yourself, don’t be your worst enemy; just do it.’”

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