Book Review – In Chambers: Stories of Supreme Court Law Clerks and Their Justices

In Chambers: Stories of Supreme Court Law Clerks and Their Justices, edited by Todd C. Peppers and Artemus Ward. University of Virginia Press, 2012. Hardcover, 472 pages. $34.95. ISBN 978-0813932651.

The U.S. Supreme Court is a highly clandestine body, so it is always intriguing to get a peek behind its protective shroud. Todd Peppers and Artemus Ward are veterans of this genre, each having written previous books about the role of law clerks in the operation of the Court. See Todd C. Peppers, Courtiers of the Marble Palace: The Rise and Influence of the Supreme Court Law Clerk (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2006) and Artemus Ward and David L. Weiden, Sorcerers’ Apprentices: 100 Years of Law Clerks at the United States Supreme Court (New York: New York University Press, 2006). Joining together, these authors have compiled a group of essays that provide “snapshots” of life as a judicial clerk spanning the history of what they dub the “Clerkship Institution.”  Recommended for academic and court libraries, the collection will be read with interest by court watchers as well as those with a casual interest in the inner workings of the Supreme Court.  

The essays are the work of a distinguished group of scholars and former law clerks. Following an introductory piece on the history of Supreme Court clerkships, the collection is divided into three time periods that highlight the changing role of law clerks as the demands on the Court have increased. The first includes essays on the institution’s “Origins,” beginning with the hiring of the first law clerk by Justice Horace Grey in 1882. Essays on the “Premodern” clerkship include tales of clerking and living with Justice Black and surviving Justice William O. Douglas’ “Boot Camp,” and there are chapters focusing on William Thaddeus Coleman Jr., the first African American Supreme Court clerk, and the first female clerk, Lucile Lomen. Finally, the “Modern” clerkship consists primarily of personal memoirs of clerking at the Court. In total, the essays give detailed accounts of the clerkship experience serving 19 different justices.

As the title suggests, In Chambers is a collection of stories about working as a judicial clerk. Unlike the editors’ earlier books, it is intended less as a scholarly endeavor (though most of the essays are well footnoted with primary source references), but instead an examination of the personal bonds formed between clerks and the justices they serve. And it is indeed the essays that share former clerks’ personal recollections, rather than those written based on diligent research, that are the most enlightening and enjoyable—notably Jesse Choper’s memories of clerking for Chief Justice Warren and Alan Dershowitz’ account of his clerkship for the “restless” Justice Arthur Golberg. Not surprisingly, these revealing discussions are limited to justices who are deceased. Only one essay is about a sitting justice, an essay by Peppers on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg based primarily on his interviews with the justice herself.     

Inevitably, grouping narratives about the clerkship experience leads to some repetition because all clerks, especially in more recent times, have very similar responsibilities. But beyond documenting those commonalities, the stories here provide unique glimpses of justices’ personalities, work styles, and private lives. They also make a valuable contribution to understanding the operation of the Court and the decision-making process of its justices.      

Debbie Shrager is a part-time reference librarian at George Mason University Law Library in Arlington, Virginia. 

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April 2012

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