Politics Alum Clerks for Supreme Court

From Virginia to Yale to Washington to ...?

By Amber Davis (English, Government ’07)
This is an image of the Supreme Court

Have you ever wondered what it's like to work at the Supreme Court? Even after graduating from some of the most prestigious law schools in the nation, recent graduates rarely encounter in-depth opportunities to witness the legal processes they've studied from the top down. Steven Shepard (Government and Foreign Affairs '01) is an exceptiononly one year after attending Yale Law School, he secured a coveted clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court under Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Shepard followed his passions at the University of Virginia, which led him to success in many endeavors he undertook. While pursuing a double major, Shepard helped to spearhead several performance groups around Grounds, among them Spectrum Theatre, the improvisational group The Whethermen, and the annual Voices of the Class presentation. He combined his theatrical accomplishments with academic pursuits, opting to take courses like a seminar on U. S. Constitutional Law with Professor David O'Brien.

Part of being a good lawyer is telling a story in a compelling way, and being fast on your feet, which are also essential to theater," Shepard said. "When I took Professor O'Brien's class, I found the material so fascinating that I decided to pursue law school."

After graduating from law school, Shepard accepted a clerkship under Chief Judge Alex Kozinski on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That one-year experience made him eligible to apply for a Supreme Court clerkship the following year.

Over the course of his clerkship, Shepard has been privy to some very large, controversial, and in most cases, confidential proceedings. In the midst of the current, fast-paced political climate, however, Shepard has found that the work of the Supreme Court has not changed at a similar pace.

"One would expect the new Congress to pass new legislation, and cases interpreting those laws will eventually reach the Court," Shepard said. "One of the symbols of the court is a turtle, which represents the slow and steady pace of justice. I think of that sometimes in relation to how constant the day to day work is in lieu of the headlines, at least in the short term."

The job, however, never offers a dull moment. The Supreme Court receives thousands of petitions that ask it to review the judgment of lower courts, but rarely grants more than one hundred. It is Shepard's job to research the legal issues presented by these petitions. For two weeks out of every month, the Court hears arguments for the petitions the justices have granted.

"Once an opinion is assigned, we're also involved in observing and understanding what it's like to craft an opinion for the court," Shepard said. "Justice Kennedy is a wonderful mentor, because he tries to make the job a learning opportunity." 

The clerks also obtain the privilege to observe all court hearings, particularly if they've played a large role in collecting the background support for each justice's final opinion.

When his clerkship stint ends this coming July, Shepard has more big plans in his future: a career with the Navy as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) lawyer, and an upcoming marriage to his financée, Patricia Stringel. After attending Officer Development School in Rhode Island in September, Shepard will be deployed where needed to preside over a variety of military legal concerns.

"Lawyers play a number of interesting and fascinating roles for the service; there are dozens of jobs for a lawyer in the military," Shepard said. "One good thing about working as a lawyer for the navy is that I will face a number of different legal challenges, and I get the chance to tackle many of them as opposed to focusing on one particular niche in a traditional role. I will have the unique opportunity to work on multiple issues while traveling the world."