The new year begins with high hopes and expectations. And so it is as I begin my year as Chair of the Council of Appellate Staff Attorneys. As for high hopes and expectations, I expect to continue efforts to increase engagement of our membership, and I hope that as we do so, we will increase our overall membership.
As you may know, planning for the 2023 Appellate Judges Education Institute Summit in Washington, D.C., is under way. And, as in years past, CASA will be involved in numerous Summit programs. There are far too many compelling topics under discussion to make it into the Summit’s final program. We will do our best to include programming on topics that spark the greatest interest to our membership, so let us know what you want to learn about! Additionally, after we set programming for the 2023 Summit, I will reach out to our membership to solicit topics of interest that did not make the final cut, and CASA will offer future webinars on some of those selected topics.
As I have attended Summits over the years, I have become more engaged in CASA because of the connections I have made with other staff attorneys across the country. I have been struck by the varied ways that courts across the country use staff attorneys to help manage their dockets, and the commitment and creativity of staff attorneys in their service. I would like to share some of those connections made throughout this year with you via this column.
To begin, let me introduce you to Jess Mekeel, the 2021-2022 Chair of CASA. The following is a short Q & A that I had with Jess:
What is your experience working in the judiciary?
I began my career as a law clerk at the North Carolina Court of Appeals for the Honorable Barbara Jackson. Thereafter, I spent eleven years at the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office, until March 2019, when I ventured beyond state government and the East Coast and relocated to Denver, Colorado, for a position as a Staff Attorney at the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. For three years, I worked with amazing judges and fellow staff attorneys, as well as clerks and judicial assistants. I also learned so much about different areas of the law, from immigration proceedings to civil rights actions, and various aspects of appellate practice, including emergencies and other special proceedings—in effect, our court’s “shadow docket.” In March 2022, I left the Tenth Circuit’s Office of Staff Counsel and began serving as an Administrative Appeals Judge for the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Tell me about your time with CASA. When did you join, and what positions have you held? Which AJEI Summits have you attended, and do you have any favorite moments?
Nearly the entirety of my three years as an appellate staff attorney was spent as a member of CASA, as I was promptly introduced to the organization (along with the ABA’s Judicial Division and Appellate Judges Conference) by my supervisors, long-time CASA members Taye Sanford and Frank Gibbard. At my first AJEI Summit (Washington, D.C., in November 2019), I was elected a Board member at-large; I was elected Chair-elect in November 2020 (unfortunately, there was no Summit due to COVID; and I was elected Chair at the November 2021 Summit in Austin, Texas. I attended my third Summit in Scottsdale, Arizona, this past November, where it was my great honor and privilege to hand over the reins to Cliffie Wesson. Each of my three Summits have provided countless memories, but a few standouts include: (1) in 2019, Justice Gorsuch’s keynote address and the evening reception in The Marble Palace itself; (2) in 2021, seeing the Shadow Docket panel that I helped organize be a resounding success and planning CASA’s social at an Austin brewery, where several judges (state, federal, and territorial) joined us in dining on hipster food-truck cuisine, exchanging t-shirts from our respective home states, and rocking out to live music; and (3) in 2022, hosting the hospitality suite (albeit a labor of love), seeing panels for which I served as the working-group leader come to fruition after a year of hard work, and enjoying another rowdy CASA t-shirt exchange, once again joined by several judges (tribal, state, and territorial). Suffice to say, each Summit offers countless opportunities for personal and professional growth, and I certainly hope to attend future Summits!
What advice would you give to young lawyers today, especially staff attorneys/law clerks?
The legal profession can often entail solitary work; work in the judiciary can be particularly siloed and insulated; and we’ve all become increasingly detached during Covid, growing more accustomed to seeing our colleagues on a screen than in person. So get out of your bubble whenever you can! Join organizations—national, state, local, and specialized bar associations; inns of court; community boards and commissions; and, yes, even organizations outside the law and government context. Meet people, listen more, have hobbies, be well-rounded, and don’t take edits and criticism personally (after all, if it’s the judge’s name on the decision, and the judge needs to be comfortable with it). Be confident; be brave; and always strive to make a positive difference, no matter how small, in your profession and the world beyond.
As I reflect on the past year, what stands out to me was the opportunity I had to work with a group of skilled and accomplished people. Jess is one of those people, and I look forward to introducing more of the talented CASA membership to you over our next year together!