As I remarked last May when then-candidate Trump first released it, nothing will make you feel quite so slackerish as learning that one of your classmates is on the short list of potential Supreme Court nominees. Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen was identified today as Trump’s nominee for the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. This is one of those occasions where I can say, “I knew her when.”
Joan was in my section my first year of law school at Northwestern University, and I had the opportunity to get to know her fairly well. It might be tempting to dish some dirt – if I actually had any. Joan was friendly and funny and whip smart. She was also one of the youngest in our class. She was a more serious student than I (which will come as a surprise to exactly no one.) And it wasn’t long before it was clear she had a bright future ahead of her.
She was an Editor of the Law Review. She was the recipient of numerous well-deserved awards and accolades. She graduated first in our class and went on to clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for Judge David Sentelle before snagging the Holy Grail of clerkships: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
On his passing, Joan penned a touching Op-Ed reflecting on what it meant to her to be a member of his “clerkorati”:
When I first met Antonin Scalia, I was a small child with one brown ponytail atop my head. Which is odd, because I was a fullgrown woman and my hair was short and blond. Still, sitting on the black leather sofa in his chambers, I remember shrinking. Overpowered by his intellect and his enormous personality, I felt that my feet no longer touched the floor. I had become Lily Tomlin’s iconic character, Edith Ann, in that great big rocking chair. And now I had to convince this giant of a man to hire me as his law clerk.
When I share that memory with others who were fortunate enough to have worked for him, heads, mostly male and uniformly accomplished, nod in recognition. I don’t believe that any of “the clerkorati,” as he liked to call us, ever felt quite fullsize in his presence.
I am often asked what it was like to be a woman clerking for Justice Scalia. “Much like being a man clerking for him” is my easy answer. Justice Scalia believed in one simple principle: That law came to the court as an is not an ought. Statutes, cases and the Constitution were to be read for what they said, not for what the judges wished they would say. Each of his opinions needed to conform to that principle and to be written clearly, forcefully and accurately. If you could help him with that, you were useful to him. If not, then not. When we were working, we sometimes joked that he could not even remember our names.
As much as he was all about the work, the Boss, as all his clerks affectionately called him, also loved to play. We once had a beer tasting in chambers, when the Boss’s questions at oral argument revealed that he didn’t know the difference between a porter and a pale ale. He was more of a Chianti man and would often take us to lunch at his beloved A.V. Ristorante Italiano, where he would order a pizza with extra anchovies. We began the year casting lots for which one of us would be forced to help him eat it; by the end of the year, we had all decided that anchovies were pretty good.
Her thoughtful tribute “sounds” just like the Joan I knew 25 years ago. I have no doubt that she will be a tremendous asset to the 6th Circuit. It won’t surprise me at all when she becomes a Supreme Court Justice. Something tells me Antonin Scalia would agree.