The Right Coast

July 25, 2005
Supreme Court Law Clerks
By Mike Rappaport

At Powerline, Michael Barone argues that the Supreme Court Justices have too many law clerks. I have long thought that this was a problem for our judicial system. Barone writes:

As a former law clerk to a federal appeals court judge (the late Wade H. McCree, Jr., of the Sixth Circuit), I have long felt that the Supreme Court justices have too many clerks. Some time ago I took a look at the statistics in the annual Harvard Law Review issue on the Supreme Court, and found that each time there was an increase in the number of Supreme Court law clerks there was also a step increase in the number of separate concurring and dissenting opinions. In the 1920s, when Chief Justice Taft encouraged unanimity and when justices had one or zero law clerks, there were few dissenting opinions and very few separate concurrences.

My radical proposal, which I am sure will never be adopted, is: reduce the number of Supreme Court law clerks to one or two. My expected result, were this ever to be done: many fewer separate opinions and clearer, more straightforward opinions that intelligent citizens could easily read in full. Try reading the opinions in most important cases today, and you need to set aside several hours and start by making a flow chart of which justices agreed with which sections of the majority (or plurality) opinion and with which sections of the separate dissents or concurring opinions. Supreme Court jurisprudence has become unfollowable even for intelligent, interested citizens. Almost no one goes through this exercise except law professors, law review editors and members of the bar who are paid upward of $500 an hour for doing so.