Zelinsky on the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Crisis
posted by Danielle Citron
My colleague Aaron Zelinsky, who is visiting with University of Maryland School of Law before heading off to the Supreme Court to clerk, has written an incisive post at the Huffington Post on the federal judiciary’s failure to stick to the hiring plan, the troubles defection causes, and his recommendation for what we ought to do about it. The entire post is here. For a bit of his wisdom:
So what’s to be done?
If judges are serious about creating a new plan to fix this race to the bottom, there’s an easy solution: use the old plan. The old plan worked just fine. It only had one problem; it was voluntary, so it unraveled. The solution is simple: make the plan mandatory.
Remember the story of Odysseus, who wanted to hear the song of the Sirens but was worried that doing so would cause him to sail too close to the rocks and wreck his ship? To get around the problem he had his crew tie him to the mast.
The judicial branch tried this solution with the old hiring plan, but they made a critical mistake: Odysseus didn’t tie himself to the mast. He had his crew do it. That way he couldn’t get the knots undone. Otherwise, tying yourself up is about as useful as putting that piece of chocolate cake in the back of the refrigerator. Sure, it helps for about ten minutes, but then you open the door, move the mayonnaise to the side, and there it is.
Instead of voluntary compliance, the judicial branch should ask someone else to tie them to the mast. In the context of our constitutional system, the term of art for this is one you may remember from middle school civics: the separation of powers.
Congress has the power of the purse. It allocates funds for building courthouses, keeping the lights on, and employing staff. For instance, law clerks are employed under 28 U.S.C. 752 (for district courts) and 28 U.S.C. 712 (for circuit courts). If the judiciary really wants to fix the hiring plan, then judges should request that Congress condition salaries for law clerks upon them being hired in compliance with the judicial hiring plan. In other words, if you don’t play by the rules, you don’t have law clerks.
But wait, isn’t that unconstitutional? Nope. The Constitution prevents Congress from lowering the salaries of federal judges, but says nothing about their staff (anyways, such a law could be written to apply only to those hired in the future, not those already employed). And Congress isn’t infringing on the judicial power in any way – this law does not effect how judges make use of their clerks, just the timing of how they hire them. And it would leave the actual formation of the plan up to the judiciary.
Federal judges could ask Congress to make the hiring plan mandatory via a proposal from a special judicial working group, or even in Chief Justice Roberts’s year end report to Congress. And they should. A new, mandatory plan would be fairer for less-advantaged law students and late-bloomers, more efficient for federal judges, and maybe even better for you.