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July 14, 2023 Appellate Judges Conference

Council of Appellate Staff Attorneys Chair's Column

By Ms. Cliffie J. Wesson, Dallas, TX

In my last column, I began by writing about spring and the promise of summer days ahead. Well, summer has arrived and I hope this column finds you in the midst of cookouts, picnics, parades, and summer vacations!

CASA has been hard at work helping with planning for the 2023 Summit in Washington, D.C. from November 2-5, 2023. The AJEI planning committee has done a fantastic job on this year’s Summit, and I can’t wait to see you all there! There are too many exciting programs to discuss in this column, but I want to highlight a few programs that have been of particular interest to the CASA planning committee members this year. The first, “Law, Justice, and the Holocaust” will be presented by staff from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I hope it challenges Summit attendees to examine decisions made by German jurists, and by understanding this history gain insight into our responsibilities as legal professionals and individuals in a democracy. Following the program, I recommend following up with a visit to the excellent museum. Sign-up for the museum tours will be available.  

I am also looking forward to “No Laughing Matter: Pop Culture References and Humor in Appellate Writing.” The panelists, including appellate judges and practitioners will talk about the ongoing debate over the use of humor and pop culture references by judges and legal writers. What are the advantages and disadvantages, and circumstances where it might be appropriate or not appropriate.

And, “Why BOTher Writing” could not be more timely. Will artificial intelligence be a benefit, or will staff attorneys that help draft legal opinions become obsolete? What about the ethics of using artificial intelligence to draft a brief?

If you have not already done so, take advantage of the early-bird specials and get registered! I also want to encourage CASA members who have not had an opportunity to attend an AJEI Summit to apply for a scholarship to help defray some travel expenses. Attending the Summit is the best way to see how CASA membership and involvement can be beneficial to you in your career as court staff. And, to those CASA members who have attended AJEI Summits in the past and can’t wait to come again, please apply for scholarship opportunities to get help with the Summit registration fee. Contact me if you need information or have any questions about scholarship opportunities. 

Lastly, as part of my efforts to share connections I have made with other staff attorneys across the country, I would like to introduce you to Elizabeth Ryan, a long-time member and past Chair of CASA. The following is a brief Q & A we exchanged: 

What is your experience working in the judiciary?

I have been a staff attorney with the Tennessee Supreme Court for over 11 years and the managing staff attorney for two years. The staff attorneys with the Tennessee Supreme Court all come to the court with significant practice experience. We substantively review the applications for permission to appeal and make recommendations to the court on their merit. We also advise the court and/or sit on the various commissions that fall under the court's umbrella. Occasionally, we are called upon to draft opinions but that generally only happens in time-sensitive or high-profile cases. As the court's in-house counsel, we also advise the court in other areas when needed.

Tell me about your time with CASA. What positions have you held? Which AJEI Summits have you attended, and do you have any favorite moments?

I joined CASA shortly after becoming a staff attorney because several of my colleagues at the court were active members. I have been on the CASA board as a member-at-large, the secretary, the chair-elect, and the chair. I have regularly attended the AJEI Summits since joining CASA. Because I attended law school in the Washington, D.C. area, my favorite summits tend to be the D.C. Summits because it allows me the opportunity to return to a place I love. My favorite summit moment, however, occurred in San Diego when Justice O'Connor spoke to the summit attendees. Though I had been in the U.S. Supreme Court for oral argument when she was still on the bench, I was surprised at her diminutive stature. Yet, when she opened her mouth to speak, that same sure, decisive, strong voice encouraged us all in the practice of law and to be examples and leaders in our respective communities.

What advice would you give to young lawyers today, especially staff attorneys and law clerks?

I would encourage young lawyers today to consider a career in public service. I have spent my entire legal career in public service. I clerked on an appellate court out of law school and then joined the Office of the Tennessee Attorney General. In my 14 years there, I handled around 800 appellate cases and briefed and argued cases in all levels of appellate courts. It is rare for a new and inexperienced attorney to handle appellate cases, but I was given that opportunity at the outset in the Attorney General's Office. I worked with (and against) some brilliant attorneys, and it profoundly influenced me as a lawyer and as a person. That opportunity and experience led me to my current job, which again has me in the enviable position of working with some brilliant lawyers and jurists.

If you are interested in connecting with fellow colleagues or becoming more involved with the work of CASA, please contact me! CASA is always looking for new members and for new opportunities for current members to get involved.

Ms. Cliffie J. Wesson

2022-2023 Chair, AJC Council of Appellate Staff Attorneys

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