This article was originally published in Centrepiece in 2013. In 2011, Benjamin Beaton ’03 landed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clerk with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This experience perfectly melded his passion for public service and the law, providing a rare glimpse into one of our nation’s most important tribunals.
The Court Is Now in Session
A government major from Paduach, Ky., and men’s valedictorian at Centre, Ben Beaton ’03 worked for a few years in the political arena (legislative assistant for a U.S. representative, deputy chief of staff in the Kentucky Cabinet) before turning to law school. As it happened, he wound up at Columbia, Justice Ginsburg’s alma mater. (She would later become the school’s first female tenured professor.) A clerkship on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals followed. In between his two clerkships, he worked for the International Justice Mission in Kampala, Uganda, where his physician wife, Andrea Zawacki Beaton ’01, was researching rheumatic heart disease. He is now a litigator in the Washington, D.C., office of Sidley Austin.
I was at the end of my clerkship [with the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals], and I pulled the only all-nighter of my entire term to hand in my last assignment. I had put on a tie, just by chance, and handed in my last draft opinion at noon. I had to [take] the Kentucky bar in nine days.
Then the phone rings. It’s Justice Ginsburg’s secretary. And she asked one of those questions to which there’s only one answer: “Hi, Ben, are you still interested in clerking at the Supreme Court?”
“Ah . . . yes.”
Then she said, “Are you available to come in and meet with the Justice at three?”
I said, “Three, today?”
The D.C. Circuit is just down the street from the Supreme Court. And right now it is ten after two. “Well, sure. I can do that.”
I try to call my professors from Columbia who knew her, to get some advice; no one’s answering. I call my wife, couldn’t get ahold of her; she was at the hospital. Luckily one of my co-clerks [down the hall] in the D.C. Circuit was just about to start with Justice Ginsburg, so she had at least had the interview. I grab my blazer, throw it on over the tie I fortunately had on, got two or three words of advice, and then high-tailed it up Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court, where I had an interview that lasted probably 45 minutes.
The next day was my birthday. I got a call about 11 a.m. at the courthouse. “Justice Ginsburg is on the other line; hold one second.”
She says, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is Justice Scalia [who had interviewed me earlier in the term] has already hired all of his clerks for October Term 2011, so he will not have room for you on his staff. The good news, or at least I hope it’s good news, is that I’d love to have you as my law clerk, if you like.”
So that’s how I came to get the job.
Justice O’Connor had a rule. One of the first questions she asked her applicants was “Which justices have you applied to?” And if you answered anything other than “I applied to all of them,” you were cut. She didn’t want people who wanted to work only for conservative justices or liberal justices. You had to be willing to serve the court and work for anyone, which I think was a good rule. It is pretty much honored these days. So I applied to everyone. I interviewed with the chief justice and Justice Scalia, and was zero for two when I got the job with Justice Ginsburg.
[Justice Ginsburg] is maybe four foot eleven, and she’s about as thin as a laptop. But she is full of steely resolve. She works deep into the night. Very regularly, you’ll find voicemails when you get into the office early the next morning that she’s left at ungodly hours when she was up preparing.
By the time March rolled around and the healthcare cases were being heard, the court had already heard 60 cases or so for the year. We [clerks] were seasoned vets; we felt like we’d seen everything. And so I was puzzled: how are these [three related cases] going to take a full week of argument, when normally that’s the time set aside for six independent cases?
You knew it was going to be a big deal, because the media were so focused on it. Typically, cert is granted (a writ of certiorari means the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case), you have oral argument, they vote in conference, you issue the opinion, maybe someone drafts a dissent. Those steps apply whether it’s a little admiralty case or the biggest constitutional case of the decade. And while that held true—those same steps applied in the healthcare cases—it felt different for us this term.
The first morning [of the healthcare cases] the courtroom was packed, and half the Senate was there. There was a quiet nervousness in the building. I said, “Oh, maybe this is different after all.”
[The clerks sit in] tiny chairs. They remind me of what we sat in when I was a kid in Sunday school. And they’re positioned in between the columns. If you were a clerk working on that case, you got a seat with a view. And if not, you had better get there very early. Otherwise, you were likely to have a seat facing a post.
I think most Americans would be shocked at how apolitical and how focused on the law the court is. The justices themselves are very warm and collegial with each other. Justice Thomas will tell people he’s never heard an unkind word spoken within the conference room or at lunch—they eat lunch together every day [that they have court or meet in conference].
—Edited from an interview by Diane Fisher Johnson