Clerks for New Supreme Court Justice Know Capitol Hill

Gorsuch picks also have White House and justice department experience

Clerks for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch have experience in the White House, the justice department and on Capitol Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Clerks for Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch have experience in the White House, the justice department and on Capitol Hill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted April 25, 2017 at 5:03am

The clerks Justice Neil Gorsuch hired to help launch his Supreme Court career bring a wealth of experience from the political branches of government, including work on Capitol Hill, at the Justice Department and the White House.

That, in turn, could help guide Gorsuch on legal issues this term dealing with cases about the inner workings of Congress or politics. While Gorsuch worked for the Justice Department before becoming a federal judge, Justice Stephen G. Breyer is the only justice with experience working for the legislative branch  — as Senate Judiciary Committee counsel in 1979-80 for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

The four new clerks know their boss well, since they all previously clerked for Gorsuch at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Colorado. Two of them have previous experience clerking for other Supreme Court justices. And they helped Gorsuch get to the Supreme Court by testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, conducting media interviews, shooting a commercial and doing other behind-the-scenes preparation.

Matt Owen left his position as staff director and chief counsel at the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to clerk for Gorsuch for the rest of the court’s current term that ends in June, according to a list of clerks the Supreme Court released Thursday.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, chairman of that panel, described Owen as “an exceptionally-talented lawyer” with “great skill and professionalism.” Owen also had served as general counsel to Portman.

“My loss is the Supreme Court’s gain, and I am sure that Justice Gorsuch will again benefit from Matt’s trusted legal counsel just as much as I did,” Portman said via e-mail. 

Owen clerked for Gorsuch in 2008-09 and also has experience in the Solicitor General’s Office, which represents the government before the Supreme Court. He also clerked for the late Justice Antonin Scalia in 2010-11 and spent nearly three years in private practice before working on Capitol Hill.

Jamil Jaffer has Capitol Hill experience as senior counsel on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence starting in 2011 and then chief counsel and senior adviser to the Foreign Relations Committee under Tennessee Republican Bob Corker starting in 2013, according to his biography as an adjunct professor at George Mason University’s law school and his LinkedIn profile.

Jaffer, who testified for Gorsuch at the confirmation hearing in March, was a clerk for Gorsuch in 2006-07 and went on to be a lawyer in the Justice Department’s National Security Division in 2007 and then as associate White House counsel in 2008-09 in the George W. Bush administration. He was director of the Homeland Security law program at the Antonin Scalia Law School at GMU. 

Jaffer testified at Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing that he was a clerk for Gorsuch for his first few months as a 10th Circuit judge. “I watched him transform from a passionate advocate for his clients into a passionate strong advocate for justice under the rule of law,” Jaffer told the committee. “He is the kind of man that cares about people, that cares deeply about his family, his friends, the parties that appear before him.”

Politics and policy

Michael Davis, a Colorado attorney, worked in the White House during the George W. Bush administration as an associate director in the Office of Political Affairs, where he served as a political liaison to federal departments and agencies, according to his biography on LinkedIn.

While at the White House, Davis assisted with the transition from the first Bush term to the second, and with selection of all presidential nominees and appointees, including the confirmations of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. He also worked in several Justice Department positions before he took the job as one of Gorsuch’s clerks in 2006-07.

Sara Fagen, White House political director at the time Davis worked there, said his role required a good understanding of how politics and policies flowed across the government. Davis needed to ensure that Bush’s nominees were reflective of the president’s policies, she said.

“One thing he brings to the court is he has a very deep knowledge of the federal government, and all the intricacies, and all these federal agencies,” Fagen said. “He’s an incredibly hard worker, and he does know the politics.“ 

Gorsuch’s fourth clerk, Jane Nitze, previously worked for the Obama administration as an attorney adviser in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and clerked for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the more liberal members of the court.

During the recent confirmation fight on Capitol Hill, Nitze cut a commercial for the conservative Judicial Crisis Network and said she was “100 percent comfortable” with Gorsuch becoming a Supreme Court justice.

“I don’t think folks on the left should be concerned about Judge Gorsuch becoming a Supreme Court justice,” Nitze said in the ad. “He will approach each case the same regardless of the issue or parties before him, and he will have a great deal of respect for folks on all sides of the ideological spectrum.”