BC SealBoston College Magazine Spring 2005
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Legal aide

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Supreme Court clerk James P. Dowden '97, JD'00

Photo by Susana Raab

Photo by Susana Raab

There are approximately 1,084,500 practicing lawyers in the United States, and every year the Supreme Court Justices may name four apiece to serve as their clerks. James P. Dowden began his 12-month term as a clerk with Justice Stephen Breyer last July.

The first lawyer in his New Jersey family, Dowden graduated from BC Law at the top of his class and then clerked for Judge Anthony J. Scirica in the U.S. Court of Appeals. As most who seek the job do, he applied for a Supreme Court clerkship to all nine justices; only Breyer interviewed him. Dowden met the justice at his home near Boston: "You can't imagine how overwhelming it was to knock on his door."

Now Dowden, a former Ropes & Gray litigator and visiting professor at BC Law, shares an office with a fellow clerk and a secretary in the court's marble building. His massive desk is topped with stacks of leather-bound books and four half-finished cups of tea. Behind him, an imposing wooden door leads to Breyer's chambers. The door is often open.

The work that goes on between justices and their clerks is confidential. "As a law student, you pore over these justices' words," says Dowden, "and now you're on the other side, serving as their sounding boards and advisors." Like the justices, the clerks have their own dining hall, to prevent the public from eavesdropping on conversations. (They also have access to the building's attic basketball court, dubbed "the highest court in the land.") According to Dowden, clerks work with the justices through every step of the legal process but the penultimate one, when the judges assemble in private to arrive at a decision. Clerks draft memoranda to help the judges decide which cases to take and summary "bench memos" to prepare the court for the petitions it has chosen. On occasion when an emergency case comes in—a last-minute petition for a stay of execution, say—Dowden may be up most of the night researching and writing.

Some 8,000 cases arrive annually at the court. "Many are handwritten by people representing themselves—often prisoners," says Dowden. The court will hear fewer than 100. But, says Dowden, "Even the smallest dispute gets read by someone here."

Cara Feinberg

 

 
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