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Clerk of the Court

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Description: Individual responsible for the administrative management of the Supreme Court's docket.


Significance: The clerk of the Court serves as the primary liaison between attorneys practicing before the Court and the Court itself.


The Supreme Court has five statutory officers: the clerk of the Court, the reporter of decisions, the marshal, the librarian, and the administrative assistant to the chief justice. Created in February, 1790, the office of the clerk of the Court was the first of the Court's nonjudicial staff. The clerk's duties have changed considerably since the late eighteenth century. The first clerk, John Tucker, for example, was singularly responsible for maintaining the library, enforcing courtroom etiquette, collecting justices’ salaries, and even securing lodgings for the justices during the Court's term. Many of these initial obligations have become the responsibility of other nonjudicial staff. Over the centuries, the clerk's office has grown considerably to a staff of twenty-six. For longer than one hundred years, the clerk, who is appointed by the chief justice, received no salary for his services. In lieu of salaries, clerks pocketed filing and attorneys’ admission fees. For most of the nineteenth century, their compensation exceeded that of the justices. In 1921 clerks became salaried employees. In 1988 Congress set their annual compensation at $75,000. Only nineteen people have served as a clerk of the Court. The primary responsibility of the clerk is to manage the Court's docket. The clerk receives and records all motions, petitions, jurisdictional statements, briefs, and other documents and has the authority to reject any submitted filing that does not comply with the rules of the Supreme Court (such as fees, forms and lengths of filings, and timeliness). In the case of an appeal or petition for certiorari, the clerk notifies the adverse party, the respondent, that he or she has thirty days to file a brief in response. After the respondent's brief is received, the clerk circulates a set of briefs for each case to each judicial chamber for consideration. Following judicial consideration, the clerk notifies the parties as to the status of the petition. Assuming that the justices grant certiorari, the clerk requests that attorneys submit briefs setting forth their arguments and how they think the case should be decided. Upon receipt, the clerk distributes these briefs to each judicial chamber and schedules a date for oral argument. The clerk also obtains the case records from lower federal courts. In addition to these duties, the clerk collects filing and admissions fees, supervises admission to (and disbarment from) the Supreme Court bar, and advises attorneys practicing before the Court on rules and procedures. The clerk also prepares and maintains the order list, which summarizes the Court's action in cases under review, and the Supreme Court Journal, which contains the minutes of the Court's sessions. In 1975 a computer system was installed to assist the clerk in the execution of formal responsibilities. The system helps monitor the clerk's records and automatically notifies counsel as to the disposition of their filings. In spite of this assistance, each motion, petition, jurisdictional statement, brief, and other document must still be processed and entered by hand. This task necessitates voluminous paperwork. In 1998, for example, the Court had 7,692 cases on its docket. Each case on the docket has, at a minimum, one jurisdictional statement and two briefs. Those cases accepted for oral argument have, at a minimum, two additional briefs. Assuming that the Court schedules oral argument for ninety-three cases, as it did in 1998, that brings the total number of “documents” received by the clerk in one term to more than twenty-three thousand.



Further Reading

  • Biskupic, Joan, and Elder Witt. The Supreme Court at Work. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1997.
  • Epstein, Lee, Jeffrey A. Segal, Harold J. Spaeth, and Thomas G. Walker. The Supreme Court Compendium: Data, Decisions, and Developments. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1996.
  • O’Brien, David M. Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
  • Rehnquist, William H. The Supreme Court: How It Was, How It Is. New York: Morrow, William, 1989.