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Stevens’ clerk choice sparks speculation of retirement

By A. James Memmott

September 3, 2009 at 7:15am

Sonia Sotomayor is in. Could John Paul Stevens be on his way out?

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that Stevens, 89, the second longest-serving justice to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, has only hired one law clerk for the court term that begins in October 2010.

The blog Above the Law identifies the 2010 clerk as Sam Erman, a 2007 graduate of the University of Michigan.

John Paul Stevens
John Paul Stevens

Active justices can have up to four clerks; retired justices can have one. Hence the speculation that Stevens might be retiring at the end of the term that begins next month.

Stevens did not indicate whether he plans to hire more clerks for 2010, and the White House did not comment.

But a former Stevens clerk told the Associated Press that the hiring of only one clerk for that term could be a sign that Stevens is thinking about stepping down.

“It seems to indicate that he probably won’t go beyond the current term,” said Joseph Thai, who is now a law professor at the University of Oklahoma. However, Thai stressed that he hasn’t discussed the matter with Stevens.

Stevens is a consistently liberal voice on the court, the leader in the past few years of a four-judge minority.

His departure presumably would not change the balance of the court, as it’s likely President Barack Obama would nominate someone who generally shares Stevens’ views to take his place.

Thirty eight clerks - four for each active justice, one each for retirees Sandra Day O’Connor and David H. Souter - are set to serve during the 2009 term that begins on Oct. 5.

As reported by Above the Law, exactly half of the clerks for the 2009 term are graduates of either Yale University Law School or Harvard Law School, with Yale edging out Harvard, 10 to 9.

The next closest feeder law school is the University of Virginia, with four graduates clerking for the upcoming term.

Sotomayor’s four clerks include Robert Yablon, a Yale graduate who clerked for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg last term, and Lindsay Powell, a Stanford Law graduate who clerked for Stevens.

Her other two picks are Jeremy C. Marwell, a New York University Law School graduate, and Eloise H. Pasachoff, who graduated from Harvard Law.

A year’s clerking for a Supreme Court justice is a credential that opens the doors to top law firms and high salaries.

Last year, the firms were reportedly paying signing bonuses of $250,000 to the clerks after they left the court.

Writing in The National Law Journal, Tony Mauro suggested that this figure may out of reach now, given the downturn in the economy and the fact that law firms are letting people go.

Then again, a quarter of a million dollars could be doable:

“A Supreme Court clerkship is a recession-proof credential,” a partner at one big firm told Mauro.

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