Brandeis Medal Winner Urofsky Focuses on Supreme Court Clerks

[by Shiela Steinman Wallace]

When it comes to the U.S. Supreme Court the clerks play a vital role. They provide the research the justices need to reach their conclusions and the citations to support their points in the written decisions.

The clerks themselves are most often young people who have just completed their legal training and are regarded as the top graduates in the country. The relationships they develop with the justices they serve shape their thinking and influence their careers for the rest of their lives.

When 2010 Brandeis Medal Winner Melvin I. Urofsky, author of Louis D. Brandeis: A Life, delivered the Brandeis Lecture on Thursday, April 1, he explored the relationship between Brandeis and his clerks in detail.


Brandeis himself clerked for Horace Gray, who mentored his protégé, in all aspects of the Supreme Court’s work. Gray demanded careful and thorough research, but then worked together with Brandeis to outline his opinions, encouraging the younger man to argue points and make suggestions as the justice crafted the opinion.

Brandeis learned so much from Gray that he adopted many of the same methods in working with his own clerks. During his tenure on the Court, Brandeis often took clerks on the recommendation of Felix Frankfurter, who was on the faculty of the Harvard Law School.

Urofsky said Brandeis enforced strict confidentiality among his clerks, instructing them never to discuss their work with others – not even the clerks for the other justices; however, he encouraged them to listen when the other clerks talked about their work.

Brandeis often inspired awe and terror in his clerks until they learned that Brandeis wanted their questions and their help in refining his opinions.

Accuracy was of the utmost importance to him, Urofsky said. Brandeis never rushed the work and always gave his clerks the time needed to do what needed to be done. When Dean Acheson made an error early in his clerkship, Urofsky said Brandeis told him, “Your function is to correct my errors and not to introduce errors of your own.”

Brandeis rarely said anything positive to his clerks because he expected perfection. He saw his clerks as surrogate sons, but was all business and called them by their last names. He also pushed his clerks to go into teaching rather than practicing law.

Urofsky also spoke at The Temple on Friday, April 2, about Brandeis, Zionism and Israel, arguing that “the way Brandeis transfigured American Zionism 90 years ago continues to have an effect on the relationship between Israel and American Jewry.”

A professor of law and public policy and professor emeritus of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, Urofsky began writing about Brandeis nearly 40 years ago, and today, seven of the 52 books he has either written or edited deal with the justice.

The Brandeis Medal, awarded by U of L’s Brandeis School of Law, was established to recognize individuals whose lives reflect Justice Brandeis’ commitment to the ideals of individual liberty, concern for the disadvantaged, and public service.  Past recipients have included Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.

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