SCOTUS law clerk hires and the art of determining ones racial identity

Every year OBABL reports on recent black law clerk hires by Supreme Court Justices. We wait for Above The Law to do the heavy lifting on this, but once they compile the list of recent SCOTUS hires, we go to work tracking down photos and bios to figure out who’s black. This task proves harder than one might think. As amazing as it is, these Millennials have virtually no cyber footprint. (Let this be a lesson to the aspirants among you — such lofty plans were hatched in middle school.) Fortunately, their parents often didn’t think that far in advance, so the clerks’ names usually inspire us to dig a little deeper. This was the case with past clerks Micah Smith, Leila Thompson, and Damian Williams. (Caveat: Williams is popular around these parts. OBABL named him among the 10 to Watch on our first Power 100. Also, our Weddings feature celebrates his marriage to Jennifer Wynn, which was announced in the in The New York Times.)

In the most recent crop of SCOTUS hires, Fred Smith, Jr., who in Fall 2013 will clerk for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was easy to spot. The professor’s picture is prominently displayed on the Berkeley website. There is also the BLSA shout out in his bio:

At Stanford, Smith was a member of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic; served as Articles Editor for the Stanford Law and Policy Review; served as President of the Black Law Students Association; was a finalist in the annual Kirkwood Moot Court Competition; and was a finalist in the American Constitution Society’s national Moot Court Competition. In 2004, he received his B.A. with Honors from Harvard College; his thesis was awardedMagna Cum Laude.

Elizabeth Wilkins will begin serving as clerk to Justice Elena Kagan in the October 2014 term. While Wilkins’ name didn’t give us much of a clue, thankfully, she has a high profile as this 2009 profile from TheRoot demonstrates:

So after graduating from Yale University, helping tenants organize in the Bronx, and working a year in the political wing of the Service Employees International Union, Wilkins moved to Chicago for months of grinding campaign work. She describes the Obama operation as “a vicious meritocracy,” in which “people see talent, they grab it and they run with it.” She rose quickly through the ranks and praises the campaign for helping thousands of young people “realize that you can both win elections and do community organizing.”…Wilkins now joins a select group of 20-somethings working for Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes. 

Our hunch that Wilkins was the daughter of Kagan’s former vice dean, David Wilkins, proved false. She is, in fact, the daughter of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Roger Wilkins and the great-niece of former NAACP president, Roy Wilkins.

Now that we’ve concluded reporting on what we, as Oprah would say, “know for sure,” let us turn to the area of racial identity speculation.

OBABL’s publisher (who, in a nod to David Lat, writes this piece in third person), grew up in Louisiana, where a white mayor and a black mayor can look a good deal alike. She now resides in Washington, DC, where the same can be said. With this in mind, we turn to these three:

Burden Walker. We could leave it at that. Digital photos of Mr. Walker are scarce. The most recent was that of his New York Times Wedding Announcement. As we’ve noted, The Gray Lady vigorously reports on the nuptials of black lawyers. We found another photo, presumably of Mr. Walker that again, left us scratching our heads. A few things led us to ultimately conclude that Mr. Walker was likely not black. He is to clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is not known for hiring black clerks. Additionally, while at Harvard, he was a part of a group called The Southern Society. Though it sounds like fun times, it is difficult to imagine black students embracing this.

The only thing that made us curious about Sophia/e Brill was the fact that she coached the Marshall-Brennan Moot Court Competition at Yale. It’s not a lot to go on, we know, but it was all we had until we stumbled across a mention of American Lawyer and Court TV founder, Steven Brill. If we had to guess, we’d conclude that this brilliant woman (who can’t decide on a first name) is his daughter.

We are going the other way on Michael Gervais, a Yale Law graduate scheduled to begin serving Justice Stephen G. Breyer in October 2014. His Linkedin photo reminds us of Carmen Chao, the fictional news anchor, whose ethnic identity is indeterminate. Our belief that Mr. Gervais is black or bi-racial is based on two seemingly meaningless things: Mr. Gervais is from Los Angeles San Francisco and has a sizable black presence on his Linkedin and Facebook pages. (Black readers may now nod in agreement.)

We encourage crowd-sourcing, so please let us know how much of this if we’ve gotten wrong. We welcome the opportunity to stand corrected.

Update: After speaking with Mr. Gervais, we made several corrections to this post. Among them: Mr. Gervais is bi-racial. His father is black (Haitian), and his mother is white (German/Irish). The “die-hard SF Giants fan” hails from San Francisco.


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