The author's work is eyebrow-raising because it violates the rule of "merta" among law clerks--what happens in judicial chambers stays in chambers. It reminded me of how little the general public, and even the legal community, knows about the inner workings of judges and their law clerks.
All federal judges, from the trial level to the Supreme Court, have law clerks. Highly prized, clerkships later open doors to the country's best law firms.
Virtually all law clerks consider their experiences rewarding. For some it is the pinnacle of their careers. This is particularly true for the district court clerks, who spend much time in court with their judge during federal trials.
But, I, of course, am biased, having clerked for a Philadelphia federal district court judge right after law school. They were the best two years of my career. "My" judge, Donald W. VanArtsdalen, who had no children of his own, treated his clerks like family. He was an authentic war hero, a small town lawyer, a successful prosecutor, and above all, a humble man completely without guile. Indeed, he thought it pretentious that judges wore black robes.
My two years working with VanArtsdale provided me with a second father figure who has inspired me throughout my career, as well as leaving me with dozens of war stories. My first day on the job brought a criminal drug trial. One of the defense lawyers stopped me in the courtroom, saying he had a "rule one" motion. Not knowing what he meant, I looked up rule one of the criminal rules. Still without answers, I went to the judge and told him about the motion. He went into the courtroom and told the lawyer that he had 15 minutes to meet with his client.
The lawyer took the client to a corner of the courtroom and began speaking to him in an animated fashion, whereupon the client took out a roll of $50 bills and paid the lawyer. "Rule one" amongst the criminal bar was to get paid first and the judge knew this. Just to give you a picture of this case, in that same trial--a drug trial--one of the defendants wore a "Captain Quaalude" T-shirt in court every day. He was convicted.
Another courtroom visitor with the last name of Campanella, in prison for murder, filed his own handwritten habeas petition which reached our chambers. The judge treated it like any other filing--with respect and dignity. This was a time when the Supreme Court was making it more difficult for habeas petitioners, imposing complicated procedural roadblocks.
I drafted a lengthy opinion addressing these many roadblocks, the judge revised it and filed an opinion dismissing the petition on "technical" procedural grounds. Weeks later, we received a note from Campanella's federal prison cell addressed to "The Estimable VanArtsdalen." After complimenting the judge on his meticulous navigation through the procedural thicket, Campanella concluded "next time, more justice and less bulls--t." The judge hung the note on his wall and it became our mantra for a long while. And it continues to provide guidance to me to this day.
Law clerks serve as sounding boards, knowing in the end that is the judge's decision and not theirs. However, I still chuckle at the note Judge VanArtsdalen sent me after I left, when an appellate court disagreed with one of his opinions--"you were reversed again."
PHILIP G. KIRCHER is co-chairman of the commercial litigation department at the law firm of Cozen O'Connor.
March 1, 2008
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