When people talk about the power of Supreme Court justices, they’re usually talking about their ability to shape laws over the course of a generation. Their opinions matter, their votes matter, they are powerful because of their official duties.
The “hard power” of the Supreme Court is more than enough to make these nine people terrifyingly important in American society, but the opinions and decisions analysis actually undersells how important these people are.
A Supreme Court clerkship is the most important credential a lawyer can put on their résumé. Supreme Court clerkships act as a kind of legal finishing school for scores of people who will go on to develop, interpret, and make laws throughout our society. Today’s Supreme Court clerks are tomorrow’s Supreme Court justices. They are tomorrow’s attorneys general and United States attorneys. They are tomorrow’s law professors and corporate GCs. Former Supreme Court clerks are incredibly powerful people in their own right, and they received their final training from a Supreme Court justice.
Today, Above the Law and Major, Lindsey & Africa reveal our SCOTUS Power Index that rates the justices based on the career success of their former clerks. We’re looking at the jobs justices’ former clerks have, with extra weight given for leadership positions.
It’s a little bit like looking at a “coaching tree” in sports. You can argue that Bill Belichick is the greatest NFL coach of all time… but his mentor Bill Parcells has trained three coaches who’ve won Super Bowls (Sean Payton, Tom Coughlin, and Belichick himself), while Belichick has yet to have a former assistant raise the trophy.
Similarly, while many have lauded the late Antonin Scalia as the most impactful Supreme Court justice of our era, our rankings place the recently retired Anthony Kennedy in the number one spot in terms of clerkship influence.
What put Kennedy over the top? The elevation of his former clerk, Brett Kavanaugh, to the Supreme Court.
Our Index also looks at the most powerful justices by industry. While Anthony Kennedy is ahead overall, Clarence Thomas has placed the most former clerks in BigLaw. Thurgood Marshall — Who has been dead for 25 years — is still the number one SCOTUS influencer in legal academia.
Check out our rankings. It’s a novel look at an old question: who is the most important Supreme Court justice?