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July 01, 2022 Introduction

The Judicial Clerkship Program’s Goal of Diversifying the Bench

By Judge Heather A. Welch

On April 7, 2022, the U.S. Senate voted 53 to 47 to confirm President Joe Biden’s nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Brown Jackson said, “it has taken 232 years and 115 prior appointments for a Black woman to be selected to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. In my family, it took just one generation to go from segregation to the Supreme Court of the United States.” During her Senate Judiciary hearings, Judge Brown Jackson provided some beneficial advice to law students when she said, “be open to new ideas and experiences because you’ll never know when someone else will have an interesting thought or when a new door will open to take you on the journey of your dreams.”

The American Bar Association (ABA) Judicial Clerkship Program (JCP) started in 2001 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in San Diego, under the leadership of Ellen F. Rosenblum and Eileen A. Kato. The JCP is a joint program of the ABA Council for Diversity in the Educational Pipeline and the ABA Judicial Division, with the generous in-kind support from LexisNexis. The JCP was created to encourage diverse law students to consider judicial clerkships upon graduation from law school, with a long-term goal of diversifying the judiciary in the United States. Some might ask, “What do diversity and inclusion mean for the JCP?” Diversity is about representation or the makeup of the judiciary. Inclusion is about how well the contributions, presence, and perspectives of different groups of people are valued and integrated in the American judiciary. Diversity and inclusion are interconnected concepts that the JCP was designed to achieve.

In this issue of The Judges’ Journal, you will learn about the importance of this ABA program and about the successes of the JCP. Articles in this edition discuss the success of Native American students, simplify the pathway for diverse law students in becoming federal judicial law clerks by meeting “OSCAR,” and explore the backstories of JCP traditions. This program was designed to introduce law students from diverse backgrounds to the life-changing benefits of a judicial clerkship. The JCP educates law students on best practices for obtaining a clerkship but also educates the judicial volunteers to consider students of color when hiring judicial clerks.

Over three days, law students have the opportunity to explore legal issues, complete legal research, prepare an outline to draft a proposed opinion for judges, and defend their legal position to judges and their law student colleagues. After attending the JCP, law students are motivated to and educated on how to apply and obtain a judicial clerkship. Since its inception, this program has impacted about 1,600 law students from across the country, encouraging them to apply for judicial clerkships. For example, Agnieszka M. Gaertner attended the 20th JCP and discusses in her article that the JCP has been a stepping stone to her sucess in obtaining a judicial clerkship in Alaska.

In recent years, the opening panel of the JCP has included a judicial law clerk who previously attended the program. Along with working on a research exercise, students have the opportunity to observe oral arguments before a state court of appeals or supreme court and hear about the journey of a diverse judge. This year, students heard from Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez of the Washington Supreme Court along with his senior law clerk and term law clerk who recently graduated from Gonzaga University School of Law. Chief Justice Gonzalez was also the keynote speaker. He delivered short, prepared remarks to the students on diversity and its importance. Judge Latrice Westbrooks of the Mississippi Court of Appeals posed questions to Chief Justice Gonzalez about his path to the bench, and students were able to ask questions. The judges also provide constructive input to the students on their resumes. This year’s research exercise addressed the constitutionality under the Second Amendment of “concealed-carry” licenses, which was a pending case before the U.S. Supreme Court. To close the JCP, former Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. of the Indiana Supreme Court moderated a session where the students could ask any questions of any of the judge volunteers.

It is my hope that you will take the time to read the articles in this edition of The Judges’ Journal. If you are a judge, I would encourage you to take a leadership role by hiring a student of color, participating in the JCP, and inspiring a colleague to hire a diverse law student. To continue this invaluable diversity program, judges must join together to follow in the footsteps of Justice Brown Jackson. If you are a lawyer, mentor a diverse student, introduce them to a judge, and encourage them to apply for a judicial clerkship. Finally, if you are a law student, encourage your law school peers to participate in the JCP, attend the JCP, apply for a judicial clerkship, and ultimately consider becoming a member of the judiciary.

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By Judge Heather A. Welch

Judge Heather A. Welch has served the ABA Judicial Division as the co-chair of the Judicial Clerkship Program since 2016, the chair of the National Conference of State Trial Judges (NCSTJ), and a member of the NCSTJ’s Executive Committee. She is also active in the ABA Business Law Section.