by Lindsey M. Welfley
Editor’s Note: This article was written prior to the passing of Chief Bankruptcy Judge Joseph Meier. We extend our condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues as they mourn this loss. You may read Judge Meier’s ‘In Memoriam’ brief in the Advocate.
There seems to be a common misconception about working for the federal government. What’s that saying? The worst thing you can hear is: we’re from the government and we’re here to help. Our federal court system, likewise, often finds itself under fire due to often simplistic misunderstandings of the system, its role, and its purpose. Ask any layperson and the general lack of knowledge surrounding how our federal court system operates may shock you. Coupled with this is often a parallel misunderstanding about the work of those employed by the federal courts – particularly the federal staff attorneys or career law clerks.
In Fall 2022, Chief U.S. Magistrate for the District of Idaho, Judge Raymond Patricco, reached out to me with an article idea to hopefully help remedy these misconceptions among our membership. Now into his third year of judicial service, Judge Patricco notes that he has quickly come to realize that the backbone of our state federal courts is held steady by one group of overlooked people: the career law clerks.
Working Structure & Caseload Statistics
With some limited exceptions, the Federal Judicial Conference limits each federal judge to one full-time career law clerk per chambers. While each federal judge is allowed multiple law clerks, only one can be designated as a career clerk. As the name suggests, these clerks do not have set terms of service. They are in their jobs for the long-haul. These career law clerks, or staff attorneys as they are otherwise known, assist the judges in their legal research, analysis, and decision-making processes to ensure judges make well-reasoned legal decisions every time. Much of the time, these attorneys have given up the financial status and prestige of the private sector for a humbler existence working in the halls of the James McClure Federal Building.
In Idaho’s federal courts, the caseload managed by the judges and their staff is impressive. There have been 1,197 bankruptcy filings for the 2023 calendar year thus far, compared to 1,141 filings during the same timeframe in 2022 – a 4.9% increase. See figure 1.
In Idaho District Court, the increase in cases from the past year has jumped even higher. There were 518 total civil cases filed in Idaho’s District Court during the 12-month period ending June 30, 2022, compared to 591 during the subsequent 12-month period ending June 30, 2023. This is a 14.1% increase.
As this article explores the work of the federal law clerks, these statistics may serve as a baseline for framing the important systems in place to support our judiciary in managing their caseloads.
Idaho’s Federal Judges & Career Clerks
Who’s Behind the Scenes?
As I began the process of scheduling these interviews in Spring 2023, it became clear that each of these clerks shared one common trait – contentment in their anonymity. I encountered humility in them that was equally heartening and comically frustrating; it is, of course, difficult to write the highlights of these fantastic people when they are collectively hesitant to say as much! Despite the difficulty posed to my writing process, this was a good sign; indeed, many judges described their clerks as the “salt of the earth.”
Dan Gordon has been a career law clerk in the District of Idaho since 2007 and has worked under the late Judge Boyle, Judge Bush, and now Judge Patricco. This institutional knowledge is something that Judge Patricco relies on consistently. Dan attended the University of California at Davis for both his undergraduate and law school education. After moving to Idaho in 1999, Dan joined Stoel Rives and practiced commercial litigation. Since he practiced mostly civil law prior to clerking, working at the federal court – particularly with Judge Patricco – was his first real introduction to criminal law.
Dan mentions, “This is work that is important for the entire system,” and notes that he enjoys this work quite a bit. Dan finds satisfaction in working as a true team among the staff – and that is just about as rewarding as it comes.
When speaking of Dan, Judge Patricco recounts again and again the value of his institutional knowledge, “With his experience on both sides, he knows how both parties may be approaching the issues; from the civil standpoint but also from the judge’s standpoint.” Likewise, Judge Patricco notes that Dan is both a humble person and an excellent listener, serving as a great sounding board for arguments and ideas.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Judge Patricco feels strongly that these law clerks deserve more recognition than they are given. There are quite a few things that law clerks give up in their roles, particularly the financial upside of private practice, standing up in Court to make their arguments, and seeing their name on their work. Patricco states, “Judges wouldn’t be able to get nearly as much done without their clerks.”
Lauri Thompson has been a quiet force in the chambers of several judges and justices since 2000 – starting with Justice Silak and then Justice Schroeder. She came to federal court in 2001 to work for Judge Lodge where she spent 18 years, then for Judge Dale, and now Judge Grasham. She has spent a total of 22 remarkable years at the federal court. Lauri graduated from the University of Idaho College of Law. When choosing which profession to pursue, she cites Sandra Day O’Connor’s nomination to the United States Supreme Court and Title IX as a few of the biggest influences to go down the legal path. “There was so much going on at that time and it was clear that the law was going to change so many things.”
When asked about the most rewarding part of her job, Lauri doesn’t miss a beat – “the people, hands down.” Everyone in chambers has an overwhelming sense of responsibility to get it right and to find the right way to apply the law. This, in turn, creates a unifying desire to make the whole experience positive (as much as feasible) and ensure everyone is treated fairly.
With Judge Grasham being fresh to the bench, she echoes Judge Patricco’s sentiment about the value of these law clerks’ institutional knowledge. “Lauri has helped me become a judge, truly.” In chambers, Judge Grasham readily admits that her temperament too often leads her to wanting to push forward, perhaps without fully diving into every possible argument. Judge Grasham praises Lauri as the temperance against that pressure, helping everyone in chambers refocus toward taking the time to get things right.
A few things Judge Grasham would implore the membership at large to remember would be: 1. These career law clerks are the eyes and ears for their judges, so treating them with respect will go a long way; and 2. Each of these clerks are committed public servants who are legal superstars with the breadth of topics covered in their day-to-day work.
Kirsten Wallace is another clerk with a long tenure. After graduating law school from the University of San Francisco School of Law, she went into civil litigation in private practice and later worked at the Attorney General’s office for four and a half years. She started part time as a career law clerk in 2002, clerking for Judge Pappas. She went back to private practice for a short while and then started for Judge Williams in 2007. Shortly thereafter, Kirsten began clerking for Judge Dale when she joined the bench in 2008.
In discussing the most rewarding parts of the job, Kirsten notes that she enjoys the process of being presented with a problem and constructing a solution. “It’s inherently satisfying to complete the projects, but I like that it’s never the same problem. It’s always intellectually challenging work.” Cases involving the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) are one of Kirsten’s favorites – she jokes that it’s probably not an area of law most people enjoy, but she welcomes the challenge they present.
This love for ERISA cases is just one example of how invaluable the career law clerks are in their diverse areas of interest and passions. Judge Dale calls out the deep appreciation the judges have for their career clerks’ review of extensive administrative records and their incredible depth of legal research. “They really do review every page that parties bring.” Judge Dale also notes that the process requires much more discussion and debate than the average person would think. She encourages attorneys and citizens alike to remember that the judicial process is not one-sided; the clerks serve an important role in maintaining the integrity of the debate behind each decision.
Bankruptcy Judge Noah Hillen’s career law clerk, Suzanne Hickok, began clerking for Judge Trott directly after law school at the University of Idaho College of Law. She mentions that at some level that’s the expectation of most law students. Initially, she was under the impression that “you clerk, you learn a lot, and then you move into your area of practice.” This ended up not being her experience, as she stuck around to clerk for Judge Terry Myers for nearly 20 years before transitioning as Judge Hillen’s clerk when he joined the bench in August 2020.
Suzanne found it rewarding to help Judge Hillen through that transition to the bench. She also finds it fulfilling and heartening that the judges truly look for clerks who are not just ‘yes’ people – which she notes notably helps our judicial system. As a clerk for a bankruptcy judge, Suzanne deals with money as the main issue in each case. However, she points out that bankruptcy touches every part of the law and quantifying intangible issues is sometimes necessary, which can be the most challenging.
In talking about Suzanne’s value to his chambers and overall workload, Judge Hillen notes that Suzanne’s institutional knowledge for our District is invaluable. Suzanne serves on the Bankruptcy Local Rules Committee, in which she reviews changes to certain rules and has a wealth of knowledge concerning the context and background of when the rules were first adopted. Judge Hillen’s hope is that the public would know and appreciate this: “There is a perception that most folks have that the law clerks are there to just research and write. That is not the case; they are instrumental to a lot more than just that for what the Courts do. They are invaluable to the process and as a younger judge, the learning curve is steep. I rely on Suzanne as someone who is experienced and able to get me up to speed.”
Carol Mills attended the University of Utah for both her undergraduate and law school education. She took a State Court clerkship in Pocatello after graduating with no plans to clerk long term. She then clerked for Judge Winmill when he was still on the State Court bench. During that time, he was appointed by the president, and she transferred to the federal court with him. After finishing a two-year federal clerkship, Carol went into private practice with the late Thomas E. Moss, during which time she wore two hats: that of a part-time civil practitioner and a part-time deputy prosecutor. She notes this time as a great experience, especially since she was in the courtroom every day and had the opportunity to try a few jury trials and numerous bench trials. In 1998, Carol’s husband took a job in Boise, and they relocated. Once in Boise, she received a call from Judge Winmill with an offer of a part-time federal clerkship; she accepted and clerked for Judge Winmill for two more years, then decided to take the next five years off to care for her young family.
When Carol returned to the workforce, she began clerking for Judge Pappas on the strong recommendation of Judge Winmill. Carol clerked for Judge Pappas until he retired and then clerked for Judge Meier.
Since she originally didn’t have any experience in bankruptcy law, she expresses her gratitude to Judge Pappas for taking the time to show her the ropes and give her the necessary background she would need in her early years as a new bankruptcy clerk. During her tenure as a clerk, she’s found it most rewarding to contribute to the jurisprudence in Idaho and work closely with the judges. She notes the great importance of this work.
Judge Meier reflected on Carol’s value to his work on the bench in admiring her ability to maintain a mature, level head when approaching difficult questions of law, and notes that the general dynamic of his chambers feels as though she’s a highly respected law partner.
Bennett Briggs has clerked for Judge Nye for the last five years and was Judge Nye’s clerk in Bannock County prior. Bennett attended Brigham Young University, J. Reuben Clark Law School where he received his law degree. Clerking for Judge Nye in the earlier years drew Bennett in for the promise of a more balanced work life and home life. He also mentions that clerking for Judge Nye specifically has inspired him to stick around for longer than he perhaps intended.
The most rewarding part of his work? Not advocating for one side or another, but rather advocating for and being part of “justice.” Bennett mentions that these are issues that affect the whole state; his responsibility holds intimidation and importance.
Judge Nye praises Bennett as the eyes and ears of Boise. With three courthouses across the state (Boise, Coeur d’ Alene, and Pocatello), Bennett oversees all cases and personnel matters when Judge Nye isn’t around. Since Boise is the main office, Bennett plays a large role in training other law clerks and externs. Judge Nye mentions, “People often think that a career law clerk is clerking because they can’t get a good private sector job; that couldn’t be further from the truth. They are working in the public sector by choice, and they give up a lot to do so.”
Judge Winmill’s clerk, Marci Smith, began her clerking experience with the late Ninth Circuit Judge Thomas G. Nelson in 2007. She graduated from Brigham Young University, J. Reuben Clark Law School with her law degree. She taught at Pepperdine Caruso School of Law prior to her clerking experience and relocated from California in 2006. Marci mentions that clerking is something that was really pushed in law school, but she never did it because she didn’t intend to be a litigator; instead, she wanted to be a corporate attorney. She ended up as a litigation attorney for 10 years anyway and was drawn to the process of how judges reach their decisions. During her relocation, she determined that finding a clerking opportunity in Idaho would be a good way to break into a new state and job market.
Marci particularly enjoys the work and variety of her day-to-day. She works in different areas of law all the time and at the District Court level everything is very fast paced. “Drafting a decision is a lot different than drafting briefs. We’re constantly looking for the right result, versus advocating for a client.”
Judge Winmill adds, “I was blessed to have Dave Metcalf and Jeff Severson as my career clerks for 25 and 10 years, respectively. They left very big shoes to fill. Remarkably, Marci has more than done so. She is simply the best writer I have ever worked with, and she has truly become my partner in pursuing innovative ways to structure our chambers and administer justice in the courtroom. She is truly remarkable.”
Alissa Bassler had a different route to the federal building. After graduating from the University of Idaho College of Law, she began her time as a clerk with Justice Kidwell at the Idaho Supreme Court, then continued with Justice Jones and Chief Justice Schroeder. She took a break to work in both the private and public sectors, later taking a break from her career altogether to focus on her family. When she returned to the workforce, she also returned to clerking, this time in the Court of Appeals for Judges Gratton and Guttierez. After this, she transitioned to Judge Brailsford’s chambers and moved with her to the federal bench.
Alissa notes that she wasn’t entirely sure what avenue she wanted to go down in her legal practice; clerking with Justice Kidwell helped her figure out that she truly enjoys many different areas of law. Generally speaking, she notes that it has been incredibly rewarding to be part of the administration of the Rule of Law. The relationships she’s formed in her years clerking have been truly fulfilling as well.
Judge Brailsford notes that there’s a feeling among many judges that judges should have term clerks that move in and out; while she agrees with that, she also thinks the career law clerks provide an incredible stability in the court system, especially given the significant caseload.
Pieces of Advice
Far from the assumption that those who can’t make it in private practice, clerk, the individuals working tirelessly alongside our federal judges are relentless in their pursuit of just legal outcomes. This project revealed three important conclusions, all of which have only increased my already positive outlook of the federal judiciary in Idaho.
First, while the final say may come from each individual judge themselves, the decision-making process is a collaborative, team effort full of debate, discussion, and sometimes intense disagreement. This collaboration is vital to making sure each decision is made carefully and correctly according to the law.
Second, the work of the federal career law clerks involves so much more than just research and writing. Many of them serve on important Court committees, providing insight into how rules and procedures are shaped. Others have decades of experience and guide new judges through the steep learning curve when joining the bench, perhaps for the first time. Their utility and value ought not be diminished.
Third and finally, each individual clerk brings a specific and unique depth of knowledge that truly helps each judge reach a well-reasoned legal conclusion. Whether it is from a previous career in private practice, or from a niche topic that piques their legal interest, the chambers of each of these judges are made better by the presence of these distinct legal minds.
I will always jump at an opportunity to talk with our members about their work, especially those who build the foundation for our third branch of government. In a time when it can feel difficult to maintain a positive outlook on how governmental entities are run, these conversations have reminded me that at the core of our state’s systems there are people – good people doing good work with good intentions.
Lindsey M. Welfley
Lindsey M. Welfley is the Communications Director for the Idaho State Bar and Idaho Law Foundation, overseeing all communications-related initiatives. She graduated from Grand Canyon University with her B.A. in history in 2015 and has worked for the Bar and Foundation ever since. Lindsey currently serves as a council member for the National Association of Bar Executives’ Communications Section. She has previously served as a writing contest committee member for Attorneys for Civic Education and a communications workgroup member for the Idaho Out of School Network. Lindsey lives in Boise with her husband, their almost three-year-old daughter, and two pets.
 Statistics & Reports, Statistical Tables for the Federal Judiciary, https://www.uscourts.gov/statistics/table/c-1/statistical-tables-federal-judiciary/2022/06/30 (last visited Oct. 26, 2023). Table C-1—U.S. District Courts—Civil Cases Filed, Terminated, and Pending, by Jurisdiction—During the 12-Month Period Ending June 30, 2022.
 Statistics & Reports, Statistical Tables for the Federal Judiciary, https://www.uscourts.gov/statistics/table/c-1/statistical-tables-federal-judiciary/2023/06/30 (last visited Oct. 26, 2023). Table C-1—U.S. District Courts—Civil Cases Filed, Terminated, and Pending, by Jurisdiction—During the 12-Month Period Ending June 30, 2023.