Petitioning the Supreme Court to Excuse a Staff Party (1951)

At the United States Supreme Court, new law clerks tend to begin their employment in summertime, when the Court is in recess. The Justices vary as employers, but each generally assigns new law clerks to review, summarize, and make recommendations regarding petitions from litigants who lost in lower courts and now want the Supreme Court to take and decide their cases. The petitions are numerous. Each is connected to a voluminous record of briefs, transcripts, and decisions in courts below. The legal questions are complicated. The work is high stakes. It also, often, is boring. It demands a high level of law clerk discipline.

On the first Monday in every October, the Court begins a new term. The Justices announce decisions, mostly denials, on hundreds of petitions seeking review. The Justices begin to hear oral arguments in the cases that they have agreed to decide. By “First Monday,” some of the law clerks, and also some of the Court’s permanent personnel, such as secretaries and assistants to the Justices, are already worn down by the push to start the new term. And there is much, much work ahead.

In 1951, by the time that year’s new Court term was starting (on Monday, October 1), Justice Robert H. Jackson’s secretary Elsie Douglas observed how weary the law clerks, not to mention the secretaries, were.

This might have been particularly true of Justice Jackson’s own law clerk, C. George Niebank, Jr. He had worked for Jackson as part of a pair of law clerks during the previous term (1950-1951). During that year, Niebank accepted Jackson’s request to stay on for a second year as his sole law clerk. Thus starting in Summer 1951, Niebank was one law clerk doing what had been the work of two.

Spring 1952: Justice Robert H. Jackson and his law clerk C. George Niebank, Jr.,
in a courtyard at the Supreme Court. (Photograph by C. Sam Daniels.)

So as that October Term 1951 began, Mrs. Douglas, no doubt having first gotten Justice Jackson’s approval, telephoned (she was extension 245) to every other Justice’s chambers. She invited all the secretaries and law clerks to a party in Jackson’s chambers (room 138).

The party occurred on Thursday, October 4, 1951. Perhaps Jackson was present.

Many law clerks were there. One was C. Sam Daniels, a University of North Carolina and Columbia Law School graduate who was clerking for Justice Hugo L. Black.

Circa Fall 1952: C. Sam Daniels, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Miami following his clerkship with Justice Black.

At the party, Sam Daniels read, or perhaps he just handed around on paper, a unique, humorous “petition.”  He had drafted it, and then he had gotten it printed formally in the Court’s Print Shop.   It had the form of a case (“No. __”) document that was being circulated among the Justices for review and decision.   The petition sought, in effect, permission for the fun that the group was in the process of having on October 4, 1951.  Maybe it was a document at-the-ready, to use later with any Justice who learned of the party and objected.

Mrs. Douglas, at least, was a supporter of Daniels’s petition.  Of course she was—it was her party.

Ever organized, she kept a copy of the document in Jackson’s office files.

For Young Lawyers, Politics Should Wait (1953)

In May 1953, Justice Robert H. Jackson had lunch at the United States Supreme Court with that term’s law clerks.  The group included Jackson’s own clerks William H. Rehnquist and Donald Cronson and the seventeen other men who were working for his eight fellow Justices.

This was in keeping with a Court tradition (which has continued).  Each law clerk of course gets to know his or her justice, through their close working relationship, very well.  And the law clerks also get to know the other Justices at a personal level, at least a little bit, through these conversation-filled, informal lunches.

During this lunch, Justice Jackson told the clerks about his two decades (1913-1933) in private law practice in New York State.  He also told them of his government service, including his five-plus years (1936-1941) in the U.S. Department of Justice.  They discussed some of the good and some of the evil in the Department’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).  And Jackson recommended strongly that these young lawyers, many interested to some degree in politics, follow his path:  be a member of a political party, sure, but do not get actively involved in politics until you have achieved some personal, meaning professional and financial, independence.

One former Supreme Court law clerk joined the current clerks at this lunch with Justice Jackson.  This man, Howard J. Trienens, had clerked for Chief Justice Vinson for two years, 1950-1952.

Circa 1952: Chief Justice of the United States Fred M. Vinson, with his law clerks
(L-R) Newton N. Minow, James C.N. Paul, and Howard Trienens.

When Trienens’s clerkship ended in summer 1952, he considered taking a job in politics.  My guess is that it had something to do with Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign.  Trienens agonized before deciding to turn it down.  He decided instead to become a law firm associate in Chicago, his hometown.

A year later, Trienens was still wondering, at least as he traveled to Washington, D.C., on law firm business, if he had made the right decision.  On that occasion, May 27, 1953, he stopped at the Supreme Court to visit, and he somehow became part of the law clerks’ lunch with Justice Jackson.

When Trienens heard Jackson say that young lawyers should not jump too soon into politics, Trienens took this as reassurance about his choice to practice law.

Howard Trienens in fact never left private law practice.  He stayed at his firm, which today is known as Sidley.  He became a giant in law and business, rose to be one of the firm’s leaders, and practiced there for almost seventy years.  Sadly, he passed away this summer at age 97.  I was acquainted with him, appreciated his kindness, and deeply admired his brilliance and his professionalism.  For Sidley’s tribute page chronicling Howard Trienens’s life and career, click here.