We Invited Everyone

Justice Brennan’s 80th birthday and other fond memories from Marie Deveney’s clerkship

Published in 2020 Michigan Super Lawyers Magazine

Marie Deveney was walking down a hallway at University of Michigan Law School when professor Yale Kamisar ran out of his office. “‘You’ve got a clerkship with Brennan,’” she recalls him saying. “He and Wade McCree, who was the former solicitor general, had recommended me, and Brennan contacted them to let them know that I had gotten the clerkship. They knew before I did.

“It was an unusual way to get a clerkship, but that’s how Brennan did it,” says Deveney, who is now a member at Dykema and a former professor at Michigan Law. “He didn’t interview; instead he relied exclusively on the letters of recommendation that he got from people he knew and trusted.” 

Deveney’s year at the U.S. Supreme Court coincided with William J. Brennan’s 80th birthday in April 1986. Deveney and her fellow clerks organized the party. “There were four of us—well, actually, five,” she says. “Retired justices got one law clerk and Justice Potter Stewart was retired and had a law clerk. Justice Stewart died and Brennan sort of adopted his law clerk; that’s just the kind of person he was. So Stewart’s law clerk became part of our chambers and worked with us to plan his 80th birthday party.” 

The big question, Deveney says, was: “Who do you invite to celebrate one of the most prominent justices in U.S. history? We looked around and thought, ‘Who loves him so much?’ It was everyone at the Supreme Court.”

Not just the justices and clerks, Deveney clarifies, but “the messengers, the staff of maintenance people, seamstresses, cooks, the janitorial staff. They adored Brennan because he was always so nice to them. The head of the garage services used to stop me regularly and say, ‘You clerk for Brennan, don’t you? I just love that guy. I taught his daughter to play basketball in the halls.’

“So we invited everyone, and they all showed up. We’ve got pictures, and everybody was beaming.” 

He was known for being collegial, and that’s precisely how he ran his chambers, she recalls. “He would meet with his law clerks every morning for coffee for about a half hour to an hour to go over the court’s docket, discuss cases, and discuss precedent. Then he was always available to consult with as we were working on projects for him, as we were working on draft opinions for his review and finalization,” Deveney says. “He was as lovely to his law clerks’ families as he was to us; he would welcome parents and spouses to come visit and give them privileged viewing spots for oral arguments. He was a very, very gracious man.” 

Deveney remembers that Justice Brennan made everyone around him feel special. “When you’d walk in his office, he made you feel like you were the best thing that happened to him all day,” she says. “He was so genuine. He was successful with people because he was such a lovable person and he was so directly engaged with the people he would interact with. His human warmth was real, and he shared it with everybody.” 

The warmth made a tough job easier. “It was a lot of work, it’s a stressful job, but it couldn’t have been more pleasant because of the justice I had the privilege to work for. It was so inspiring,” she says of her clerkship. “He was an inspiration to how to live your life. I was very privileged and very lucky. I would have been privileged to clerk for any of them, but to have a human like that, a role model for how you can be one of the most powerful people in the U.S. justice system and still maintain your humanity, was a great example.” 

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