Edith Roberts is the Editor of SCOTUSblog, the definitive website for Supreme Court coverage, where she compiles weekly news roundups. She previously attended Harvard Law School and served as Supreme Court editor of the Harvard Law Review. Following law school, she clerked for Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Below is her interview with Joe Hanlon.
How did your choices in high school influence your career path?
Oh my goodness; it’s such a long time ago, and difficult to remember. I certainly didn’t put myself on a trajectory to being a lawyer or covering the Supreme Court in high school, but I guess the main interests that I had were English, language, and literature. It was always my favorite thing to study, it’s what I majored in in college, and I have an MA in it as well. It just has been incredibly useful to me throughout my life to know how to write clearly, make distinct arguments, and read complicated material to get to the heart of things and analyze complicated ideas.
I would add that I was involved in my high school newspaper. I was editor, which has been another useful thing. I guess that shows that I was interested in writing, because one way you obviously get better at it is by doing a lot of it. That really helped with things. Both of my kids, actually, were very involved in their high school newspapers. They, like you, were really interested in the Supreme Court during high school. They also did this thing called the Harvard Model Congress. It’s kind of like Model UN, but it’s focused on the doings of government in the United States. You do a simulation where some people are legislators and some people are cabinet members. They also have a Supreme Court section where you can do oral arguments based on actual cases. They loved that; it was pretty cool. I think it’s probably something you might be interested in.
How did you first decide you wanted to go to law school? What made you choose Harvard?
Ahh [laughs]. I had kind of a circuitous route, so my experience is not representative of many people’s experience. After college, I was a paralegal for a year, because I thought I might want to go to law school. After I was a paralegal for a year, I decided I did not want to go to law school. I ended up taking seven years off in between college and law school — which was not very common back then. I ended up working in local government here in DC for the legal counsel to the mayor, and I found that pretty interesting. To tell you the honest truth, I didn’t exactly want to be a lawyer, but I knew I was good at going to school and that I would be able to get into a good law school. It seemed like if I went to LS, I would probably be able to have a reasonably fulfilling career and have a useful skill. And so that’s why I went to law school.
I picked Harvard because… well, I think I just applied to a few places. I didn’t want to go to Yale or Stanford, because they were too small. I went to Yale undergrad anyway, and I didn’t want to go back to New Haven because it was a dump. I think it may be a little different now. Harvard was bigger, and I kind of thought it would be better for me. As an older student, I might find more people in my circumstances, and I’d be more likely to find peers there because there was a bigger pool of people. That is why. I was never on this path to becoming a lawyer; I didn’t have a love of the law or any of that. I really just went for practical reasons, and mostly because I couldn’t figure out what else to do. I do not recommend that as a reason to go to law school.
Did you find a love of the law?
I didn’t end up practicing law for very long. Honestly, probably what I should have done from the very beginning — and I kinda ended up there in what I’m doing now — is I should’ve been an editor. Because that’s really what I’m more interested in. I didn’t want to litigate, and I didn’t want to do corporate law. I loved clerking, and that was great. But then after that was over and I had to actually go and do law, it wasn’t something that I really had that much of a calling for.
I think more and more people go to law school with the thought of not wanting to be a litigator or a traditional lawyer — to explore different careers that maybe haven’t been available in the past. It’s kind of a springboard, I think, for some people.
Yes, that is true, but you have to know where to spring to. And my problem was always figuring out where I wanted to spring to. I didn’t ever really figure that out satisfactorily, until I ended up working at SCOTUSblog.
While there, did any one professor or class stand out to you? Why?
I did not love law school, but I really liked property — and I don’t know why exactly. I just found the concept fascinating, and it made me think about things in a different way. I can’t really describe it. It was just this feeling of opening up the doors and looking at the way life works on a basic level, the way that people interact with each other and their rights and relationships. It gave you an understanding of the way things worked that I don’t think I had ever understood before.
Harvard is not the most cozy, touchy feely, ‘develop a warm relationship with your professors’ type of place. Maybe it’s a little more that way now, but it wasn’t then. I never really sought out teachers for mentorships, so I would have to say not really. It just wasn’t that kind of atmosphere then. If you’ve ever seen The Paper Chase or anything, or read 1L, there are a bunch of books and movies about Harvard Law School from the sixties or seventies. It sounds just horrible. People were more approachable and it was more of a humane place when I went there.
You worked on the Harvard Law Review and were the Supreme Court editor. What was this like?
The law review for me was a great experience because given that Harvard was so big, it was a small group of people — 40 or 50 people — which I enjoyed. We did a lot of work on different articles people would submit, notes that students would like, and fact checking. Back then you actually had to go and look things up in books! It wasn’t very glamorous work, but I liked it because it involved editing. So I actually liked the work quite a bit, and I liked the social connections that I made there. It was useful for clerkships and career advancements, and I guess I enjoyed that aspect too because it made my next step after law school easier.
When Supreme Court opinions came out, we would get copies of the slip opinions. I guess they mailed them to us, I don’t know how else we would have gotten them. Before we laid hands on them, I suppose we learned about them from the newspapers. You know, it’s hard to remember really; the world has changed so much. I do remember reading the slip opinions. We would keep them in binders. I was responsible for the Supreme Court statistics, which is what I did as editor. There were two of us: one would edit an article a professor wrote, and one would do statistics for the Court. We flipped a coin to see who would do which. I lost and had to do statistics, which is not the kind of thing I really enjoy or am very good at. I had to compile a bunch of information about who voted and which Justices joined other Justices. I think in the old days, people actually relied on Harvard Law Review’s Supreme Court statistics quite a bit to get information. Now people look to SCOTUSblog and Adam Feldman, and all kinds of people can do it at home. In those days, it was a relatively important thing to be in charge of. It wasn’t my favorite thing.
After law school, when did you decide you wanted to clerk for a federal judge? What made you choose the D.C. Circuit and then Judge Ginsburg?
It actually happened during law school. In those days, I believe it happened some point in your second year. There’s been a lot of controversy in the judicial clerkship selection. You might have read about that. I think what they’re doing now is hiring people based on their first year grades, which is ridiculous. It’s just not really enough information and puts a lot of pressure on 1Ls; it seems unhealthy to me.
Back then, it was towards the end of second year, so I was already on the law review. I wanted to clerk because I knew I would enjoy it and I would learn a lot. And I knew I wanted to clerk for an appellate judge because I didn’t find trial litigation as interesting as appellate stuff. I liked the idea of distilling everything down into the argument. I knew I wanted to have an appellate clerkship, and it was very, very competitive. Judge Ginsburg was very early to make offers. I applied to the DC Circuit because I was born here [Washington D.C], my parents lived here, and I liked the idea of coming home. It’s also thought of as one of the more prestigious clerkships, so I thought there may be some particularly interesting cases. Ginsburg interviewed me early in the season and offered me the job, and I took it.
What was the clerkship application and interview process like?
It was very quick; it was just a question of sending a cover letter. They were most interested in your grades, I think, and maybe a recommendation or two. But, as I mentioned, I did not have any super close relationships with any professors. I’m pretty sure I asked for recommendations from professors whose class I did particularly well in. You basically wrote a brief cover letter, included your grades, figured out where you wanted to be, and sent out a bunch of these letters. And then people started calling you for interviews. But it didn’t last that long for me, because as I said, she pretty much hired me right away. I hadn’t even interviewed with anybody else yet.
Any tips for those hoping to clerk someday?
Well, I think you have to get really good grades in law school! It just boils down to that, unfortunately. It would be nice if they cared if you had a lot of clinical work helping homeless people, but I don’t think they care about anything except how well you do in law school, which is indicative of whether you’ll be a good clerk.
As a law clerk what did your day normally look like?
I guess it depended on the sitting. The way it worked was there would be arguments every month, something like September through May, and your judge would be assigned to a specific panel for that month. She’ll know what cases she has and she’ll assign different cases to the different law clerks. So you’ll split up the cases for each sitting, and usually what you would have to do is read all of the briefs and then write what they call a “bench memo” to the judge. This is where you summarize the arguments of each side and include a tentative conclusion of which way you think.
Was that hard to do at first? It seems like a weighty assignment to go through briefs and synthesize it for the judge.
It could be challenging; it depended on the case. Some were straightforward, and some had tons of briefs and were complicated factually and sometimes legally. Or they would be dry — there’s a lot of administrative law in that circuit. If you don’t like what an administrative agency does, you have to appeal it to the DC Circuit. So it would depend on the case. First it was kind of intimidating, but it got easier. I think by the end of the year it was less so because you figured out how to be efficient. Then, when the arguments happened you would go and listen, and afterward she would sometimes want to talk to you about it — not always. She would tell you how she would vote.
If she were writing the opinion, you would write a draft opinion and then she would edit it extremely heavily. She was a very rigorous editor. She had this pair of scissors, and you would send in your draft opinion all printed out, and she would literally cut and paste. She would cut out little bits and stick them on yellow legal paper, and she would make her edits in long hand pencil. You get this thing back that looks like some collage, with little bits of your drafts interspersed with parts she had written. She didn’t always do that, but she did it relatively frequently. It was a goal to get to less of that happening and get our drafts back more or less intact.
Did that help you in your legal writing and understanding of language?
Yeah definitely. Some of it was language, and some of it was organization. She would cut and paste by moving things you had written into different orders. So both of those things — the actual writing and also the way to organize thoughts.”
What would you say was special about clerking for Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
I think the thing I said already — how she made us better thinkers and writers. I don’t know that all judges would teach you much about those things. It is hard to say because I don’t have anything to compare it with, but that was special. Another thing that was special is… she comes off as quiet and reserved (maybe not now with this whole Notorious RBG thing). When she speaks to you, she speaks very quietly, and she pauses for a long time between her sentences. This can be a bit off putting, as it was in my clerkship interview. She would ask me something and I would respond, and then she would say something else. Or she might be in the middle of a question. There would be this pause, and it was kind of confusing because you thought someone should be saying something. So you would start to blurt something out, and then she would continue with what she had started to say. You would feel like a fool because you had kind of interrupted her. She must have been used to it, because it probably happened all the time, but it was a little off-putting. You had to get used to that.
She seems to be very reserved and soft spoken, like she might not want to necessarily develop personal bonds with her clerks. But on the contrary, she was extremely warm and very interested in us and our lives. Her husband would bring in these homemade cakes and a bottle of wine anytime somebody had a birthday, and we would have a celebration. She took us on different outings, some of which were supposed to be educational. She took us — I thought this was fascinating — to the DC jail, and to this prison that used to be not that far from DC. And we did this whole tour of the jail and prison so we could see what conditions were like for people there — which I had never seen in my life. We went to a juvenile detention facility too. It was very eye-opening for me, and I really appreciated her doing that. She would also take us to cultural events; I think she took us to the theater and a concert.
She also was a kind of a romantic. She loved the idea that Matt (my husband now) and I were romantically involved; she thought that was really sweet. A year or two after the clerkship, she had this Valentine’s Day dinner at this restaurant in DC where she invited us, and other couples who had clerked for her and gotten married, to a Valentine’s Day dinner at an Asian restaurant. She had these fortune cookies made with fortunes for us inside — special little romantic fortunes. These cookies appeared for dessert, we opened them up, and hey had lovely little predictions about our happy lives together. It was sweet, something I had not expected from the clerkship, and was memorable and lovely.
I love her. She’s my favorite!
One more thing about her that was special to me; she also was very nice to me after the clerkship, when I didn’t end up doing a Supreme Court clerkship and didn’t end up working that long. Because after a couple of years, I had my first child. I ended up working part time for years and years after that and didn’t really pursue my law career. She continued to give me opportunities, and she invited me several times to speak at events where she was being honored in some way. She also asked me to write her biography for the Supreme Court Historical Society, which I thought was really supportive — because I wasn’t exactly showering myself with glory professionally or doing anything to enhance her reputation. She still wanted to give me opportunities to do the things she knew I liked to do, the writing and whatnot. I was touched and impressed by that.
How did you get involved with SCOTUSblog?
I have only been doing it for a couple of years. I got involved because after I had my first child, I was working part time for a long time. Then both kids went to college and I was looking to do something full time. I happened to know someone who was the editor before me, and it happened to be a time when they needed a new editor. So that’s how that happened. It has been an absolute godsend for me because it combines legal training with my interest in editing, and writing to a lesser extent.