With everyone pushing to get off the plane, now was not the time to explain to a stranger the power and prestige of law clerks, and how the work that they do, far from being “clerical,” affects the fundamental rights of every American. I said a cordial good-bye to the woman and went on my way.
Inside the terminal, I stopped at a Starbucks for coffee and a (lowfat) blueberry muffin, unlikely to give me stomach trouble and therefore safe to eat before an interview. I had learned, from past experience, not to go to an interview on an empty stomach. During my senior year of college, while I was being interviewed for the Rhodes Scholarship, my stomach growled — loudly — and I didn’t get the fellowship. Perhaps there were other reasons, but to this day I blame my audible stomach rumblings.
And that mistake changed the course of my life; had I gotten the Rhodes, everything would have been different….
Have you ever had an experience where, had things turned out just a little bit differently, your entire life would have changed? The time a talent scout visited your college athletic practice? The time you almost got asked out by a celebrity? The time you came in second at a prestigious musical performance competition? For me, that time was my failed Rhodes interview. Like a Supreme Court clerkship, a Rhodes Scholarship gets mentioned in your obituary. (And a Rhodes Scholarship plus a Yale Law degree would have pretty much guaranteed me a Supreme Court clerkship.)
After polishing off the coffee and muffin — I didn’t want to eat and drink on the run, and risk spilling on myself before the interview — I made my way to the terminal exit. I stepped outside, into brilliant sunshine and a perfect temperature in the low seventies, and headed for the taxi line. Unlike New York cabs, which are all yellow and made in a limited number of styles, cabs in Los Angeles lack uniformity of appearance; they instead come in an unregulated jumble of colors and styles. Welcome to the jungle.
I wound up in a minivan, painted red, white, and blue. The driver was thin, cheerful, dark-skinned, and of indeterminate age. His driver identification card said his name was Pervez Hamadani; I guessed he was Pakistani. I thought about how an immigrant cab driver was about to drive me to my clerkship interview with a federal judge who was herself the daughter of an immigrant cab driver. America might not be perfect, but stories like Judge Stinson’s could still inspire.
Pervez made eye contact with me using his rear view mirror and asked me my destination. I told him the address, feeling self-conscious as I said it, since it had a certain regal ring to it: 125 South Grand Avenue, Pasadena.
“What is that?” he asked, as he entered the address into a GPS device. Again, a difference between L.A. and N.Y.C. cabbies: the latter wouldn’t be caught dead using GPS (even though, truth be told, some of them could use it, especially in the West Village).
“It’s a federal courthouse,” I said. “The Ninth Circuit courthouse.”
“In Pasadena? Isn’t the courthouse downtown?”
“That’s the district — er, the trial — court. I’m going to the appeals court.”
“What’s the difference?” he asked, pulling away from the curb. I wondered whether he was trying to be polite or was genuinely interested.
“The trial court is where most of the action is. It’s where trials are held, where criminals get sentenced — that sort of thing.”
“Ah, like O.J. Simpson!” The driver’s face brightened with recognition; he actually seemed interested. “My first year in the United States. The white Ford Bronco. That was wild!”
“Yes, like O.J.,” I said, “except that was state court, and I’m going to federal court.”
“And what’s the difference between state and federal court?”
I felt like a law professor teaching a 1L civil procedure class. Was this fellow preparing for his citizenship test?
“That’s complicated,” I said. “It depends on the law involved. Some areas of law are mostly state law, like family law and divorces and that sort of thing. And some areas of law are mostly federal — like immigration, say.”
Mentioning immigration seemed to dampen Pervez’s enthusiasm for discussion of the American legal system. He grew quiet, then turned on the radio, to NPR. I looked out the window at the passing neighborhoods of Los Angeles, which reminded me of the cab queue at the airport, chaotic and clashing. The city seemed squalid and seedy. At least L.A.’s infamous traffic wasn’t bad: there was plenty of volume, but we were moving at a decent clip. I was surprised at the hilly, wooded terrain; I always thought of Los Angeles as sprawling, flat, and denuded.
As we passed through a series of tunnels fringed with lush vegetation, Pervez lowered the volume on the radio and made eye contact with me through the rear view mirror.
“Young lady, if I may ask, where are you from?”
There was something courtly in his demeanor. I decided I liked Pervez.
“And you are going to be having a trial in a court?”
“Oh no, I’m going to the appeals court,” I said. “If you go to the trial court and the judge rules against you, and you disagree with her ruling, you can go to the appeals court. If the appeals court agrees that the trial judge messed up, then her ruling gets reversed — overturned, you could say.”
“Ah, I understand,” said Pervez, nodding. “So why are you going to the appeals court today? You want them to overturn some judge?”
“Oh, I’m not a lawyer….”
Pervez turned around and grinned.
“You are too young — and too pretty! — to be a lawyer.”
I laughed. His grin was sweet, not lecherous.
“Thank you,” I said, “but actually, I hope to be a lawyer someday. Right now I’m in my last year of law school.”
Pervez turned back around and returned his focus to the road (to my relief).
“So what brings you to court then?” he asked.
“A job interview. I’m applying to be a law clerk to a judge.”
“And what would you do if you get this job?”
“I’d assist the judge in deciding her cases — helping to get her ready to hear oral arguments, and then researching and drafting opinions. And a few other tasks, but those are the main ones.”
“This sounds very important! I bet it pays well.”
“Not particularly. But it looks good on a résumé, and you can get a high-paying job at a law firm afterwards.”
“And where do these cases come from? All over?”
I was starting to feel like a Wikipedia entry. But maybe this was a good refresher for me before the interview.
“This court is called the Ninth Circuit. It hears cases from nine Western states, including Califonia, Arizona, the Pacific Northwest. It’s the biggest of the 13 federal appeals courts, with about 30 active judges.”
“And the headquarters is in Pasadena?”
“San Francisco, actually. But there are also courthouses in Pasadena, Seattle, Portland….”
“You are a very knowledgeable young lady! I bet you will do great in your interview.”
“Thank you! I hope so.”
We exited the highway and turned on to a broad boulevard lined with orange trees. It was a stately street, with large and tasteful homes on either side, all bathed in a golden light. It reminded me of exclusive neighborhoods back east, in Westchester or Fairfield Counties. As my mother rode the 7 train back to Woodside, the doctors she worked for would drive their Mercedeses and BMWs back to towns like this.
Pervez noticed me craning my neck to take in the scenery.
“This is one of the nicest parts of L.A.,” he said. “We’re almost there. If you get the job, you’ll get to see this every day!”
We turned left on to a shadeful side street, then quickly turned right. Seemingly out of nowhere, a palatial, pink structure materialized on the right. Standing about six stories tall, with a bell tower, it loomed over the low-slung residential neighborhood.
Said the female voice on the GPS: “You have reached your destination.”