I ended up with a window seat on my flight out to Los Angeles to interview with Judge Stinson. Since I had booked on short notice, I was stuck near the back of the plane, close enough that I could smell the lavatories’ mix of cleanser and other substances. But at least I wasn’t stuck in a middle seat; in fact, the middle seat next to me was empty, a rare thing these days. The relative comfort allowed me to concentrate for most of the flight, reading print-outs of newspaper articles about Judge Stinson, her most noteworthy opinions, and the generally glowing clerkship reviews from the Yale career services office written by former Stinson clerks, which only made me want the position more than I already did. (One line that stuck in my mind: “The worst part about clerking on the Ninth Circuit and for Judge Stinson is that I probably won’t have a job that’s this interesting, and a boss who’s this awesome, until many years later in my legal career — if ever.”)
An elderly Asian woman in a red sweater set was in the aisle seat of my row. After the beverage service — water for me (too early for Diet Coke), hot tea for her — she looked over at me and smiled.
“You look very nice,” she said. Based on her age, I expected her to have an accent, but she did not. She was probably born and raised in California.
I thanked her for the compliment.
“Let me guess,” she said, leaning in slightly. “You’re going for a job interview.”
I wasn’t really in the mood to talk — I was too nervous about the interview, taking place just a few hours from now — but I didn’t want to be rude.
“Yes, good guess!”
It was actually a pretty obvious guess; women my age don’t wear navy skirt suits with cream-colored tops for fun. But I didn’t want to be rude, which would be bad karma before my interview.
“What kind of job are you interviewing for?”
“A clerkship with a judge.”
“Very good, very good,” she said, nodding.
I wanted to return to my interview preparation, so I smiled at the woman and returned my gaze to the stack of papers on the fold-down tray in front of me. She seemed to take the hint, fishing the in-flight magazine out of the seat pocket in front of her.
In the time that remained, I decided to reread the entry on Judge Stinson that I had photocopied from the Biographical Directory of Federal Judges. I had read Judge Stinson’s profile countless times, but decided to read it one more time, just for good measure.
Christina Wong Stinson
Circuit Judge, Ninth Circuit
125 South Grand Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91105-1643
Appointed in 2007 by President Bush.
Judge Stinson was 50 — a perfect age for a Supreme Court appointment, young enough to have many years of judging left in her, but old enough to be taken seriously. She had five years of experience on the appellate bench, which was also a decent number. She was a Bush appointee, i.e., a Republican. So whether she even had a shot at the high court would depend on who won the election this fall. If the Republicans lost, she’d have to wait another four years before she’d have a shot.
Education: U.C.L.A., B.A., summa cum laude, 1984; Univ. of California, Berkeley, J.D., 1987.
Many federal judges, academic overachievers throughout their lives, have strong educational pedigrees. Judge Stinson was no exception: U.C.L.A. undergrad, with honors, followed immediately by law school at Berkeley (aka Boalt Hall). These were both excellent schools — and they were state schools, which could help Judge Stinson in terms of her chances of being nominated to SCOTUS. Lately some critics of the Court had taken to complaining about the institution’s elitism, noting how many of the justices hailed from Harvard and Yale.
Private Practice: O’Melveny & Myers, associate, 1988-1994; partner, 1995-2004.
O’Melveny, together with Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and Latham & Watkins, was one of the “Big Three” California law firms — the “most traditional and most prestigious of Los Angeles law firms,” according to the New York Times obituary of a former O’Melveny partner who served as U.S. Secretary of State. Not only did Stinson work at O’Melveny, but she made partner there — no small feat, given the long odds of making partner at a major firm.
Government Positions: Law Clerk, Hon. Jonathan Coppersmith, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, 1987-88.
After graduating from Boalt Hall and before joining O’Melveny, Stinson served as a law clerk herself, for a trial-court judge in the Central District of California (Los Angeles). I wasn’t familiar with Judge Coppersmith — I guessed he was either retired or deceased — but the fact that Stinson had served in such an impressive position showed how she had been a superstar dating back to the start of her legal career.
Previous Judicial Positions: U.S. District Court, Central District of California, 2004-2007.
Before her appointment to the Ninth Circuit, Judge Stinson served for a few years on the trial bench in Los Angeles, the Central District (where she had once clerked). This was yet another thing about her that appealed to me: as a former trial judge, she would have insights to impart about how to try a case and how to win over a jury, as well as war stories from her time in the trenches.
Professional Associations: American Bar Association (House of Delegates, 1998-2000); Asian Pacific Bar Association of Los Angeles County; California Women Lawyers; Federal Bar Association; Los Angeles County Bar Association; National Asian Pacific American Bar Association; State Bar of California; Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles.
Stinson’s involvement in numerous bar associations, including ones focused on women and Asian Americans, was not surprising. Becoming a federal judge isn’t just about legal ability; it’s also about whom you know. Bar associations provide ample networking opportunities. And bar associations for specific minority communities can help galvanize those communities to support a nomination.
Publications: Note, Depreciation Deductions Under the Tax Reform Act, 74 Cal. L. Rev. 1410 (1987); The Role of the Federal Judge in Our Constitutional System, 95 Va. L. Rev. 253 (2009); Jurisdiction as Limit on Federal Judicial Power, 33 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 963 (2010); On Judicial Restraint: Some Notes from the Ninth Circuit, 59 UCLA L. Rev. 60 (2011).
That Stinson had published a student note — essentially a law review article, but written by a student — wasn’t surprising; it’s what overachieving law students do. But her more recent publications were impressive. The most well-respected circuit court judges — the ones with the most prestigious clerkships, the ones who feed their clerks into Supreme Court clerkships, the ones who might someday be elevated to serve on the Supreme Court themselves — tend to be academic and intellectual in their orientation. So they often publish scholarly articles in law reviews, even though they aren’t required to. Contributing to legal academic journals is one way a judge can enhance her prestige and cultivate a national reputation.
Writing law reviews can also be dangerous for a judge seeking elevation to a higher court, if the judge articulates some harebrained or wacky legal theory. But Stinson’s articles — all of which I had read, some of them twice, in preparation for the interview — were unlikely to harm her nomination prospects; if anything, they would help them.
In general, Stinson’s articles advocated judicial restraint: the notion that judges should limit themselves in the exercise of their power, by deferring to the elected branches of government and by respecting the text of laws and the Constitution. This was hardly an original concept; justices as far back as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Felix Frankfurter have articulated its principles. But Stinson’s law review pieces, despite lacking profound originality, were well-written: clear, cogent, and surprisingly lively for what you’d expect from a sitting judge. She boldly criticized several rulings by fellow judges on the Ninth Circuit, a court well-known for its liberalism, as embodying the opposite of judicial restraint — “judicial activism,” when judges make decisions for personal or political reasons, instead of confining themselves to the law as written. I respected her for being willing to call out wayward colleagues, and I agreed strongly with her understanding of the judicial role — which was yet another reason I wanted to clerk for her so badly.