I continued reading through Judge Stinson’s bio. I wasn’t surprised to see that she was Order of the Coif — which has nothing to do with hair. It’s a national honor society, like Phi Beta Kappa, but for law students. The other accolades were more recent, recognizing her work as a litigator at the O’Melveny law firm or her work as a judge. Most judges have a passel of awards — shockingly, lawyers love to bestow honors upon judges — but Stinson’s list of accolades was longer than most, especially considering her relatively young age.
Next up: a listing of her noteworthy rulings. In a number of cases, Stinson took a position — sometimes in dissent, disagreeing with her fellow judges — that was then vindicated by the Supreme Court. She could be described as fairly pro-defendant in civil cases and somewhat pro-government in criminal cases.
Among the cases, this one jumped out at me:
Upton v. Department of the Air Force, 548 F.3d 1264 (9th Cir. 2008): Dissenting from the denial of en banc rehearing, Stinson argued that the congressional military policy known as ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ remained valid, despite Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003). She maintained that Lawrence’s substantive due process applied only to criminal penalties for private behavior in the home, not to matters of military personnel policy.
Interesting. The Upton opinion seemed to suggest a certain conservatism on gay rights, which surprised me coming from a woman of color who lived in southern California and was connected to the entertainment industry (through her marriage to a high-powered Hollywood talent agent).
Stinson also felt strongly enough about the issue a “dissental,” or to dissent from the denial of en banc rehearing. A judge of the Ninth Circuit called for the Upton case to be reheard “en banc,” or by a larger group of judges. The Ninth Circuit voted on whether to rehear the case en banc and ultimately decided against rehearing. Judge Stinson wrote an opinion dissenting from that denial of rehearing, arguing that the panel’s decision was deeply flawed.
Media Coverage: Stinson has been widely mentioned as a possible nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court in a Republican presidential administration. News reports note her impressive credentials, her youth, and the diversity she would bring to the Court (as the first-ever Asian-American and only the fifth woman to serve as a justice).
The possibility that Stinson might someday join the Court contributed to her allure to clerkship applicants like myself. It represented a chance to become part of history. Circuit judges are important and powerful figures; but Supreme Court justices, like diamonds, are forever. Even mediocre justices become part of American history. Clerking for a judge who later becomes a justice is the next best thing to clerking for a justice (and sometimes judges who become justices invite their clerks to work for them at the Court). If you clerk for a judge who later becomes a justice, in your professional bio you will be forever introduced as “a former law clerk to then-Judge So-and-So” — the “then-Judge” part indicating that the jurist in question now bears an even more august title.
In addition, judges who are possible Supreme Court contenders — so-called “Supreme Court short-listers,” since they’re on the president’s short list of possible nominees — are generally regarded as the best, the most accomplished, and the most brilliant members of the bench. This makes some sense, since presidents and political parties want to place great thinkers and writers on the Court. It’s not a complete meritocracy, since there are other considerations that go into picking a nominee, such as diversity (be it gender or racial or geographic). But there are very few judges who are mentioned as Supreme Court short-listers who would be regarded as weak judges. If a judge is mentioned as a possible nominee, it’s generally a sign that she is held in high esteem by the legal community.
Lawyers’ Evaluation: Stinson received praise as a judge with strong legal abilities and a high level of preparation. “She is top-shelf – very smart.” “She is a very good judge, well-prepared and hard-working.” “She is an incisive and insightful judge.” “Her level of legal ability ranks at or near the top of the court.”
Lawyers described Stinson’s demeanor as pleasant, professional, and businesslike. “She is cordial and courteous.” “She is generally good to lawyers, but she can get worked up.” “She can be friendly, but on the whole she is serious on the bench.”
Attorneys warned, however, that Stinson can get upset if a lawyer is not prepared or does poor work. “She is perfectly nice — as long as you are well-prepared and know your case.” “She will know the record well, so you better know it too.” “If you have prepared your case, you will not have a problem with her.” “If you answer her questions directly and correctly, you’ll be fine; if not, woe unto you.”
Stinson is an active questioner at oral argument. “She is no shrinking violet; she can be fierce.” “She asks questions that cut to the heart of a case.” “She is smart and well-prepared, and you can see that in her questions.”
Attorneys offered praise for Stinson’s written work. “She is a very fine writer.” “Her opinions are thorough and well-reasoned, and they reflect a lot of work.” “The quality of her opinions is high.”
The upshot of the evaluations: Stinson held a well-deserved reputation for excellence. The more I read about Stinson, the more I liked and admired her — and the more I wanted to clerk for her. How many Asian-American women could reach the exalted position of United States Circuit Judge, garner high praise from serving in that post, and be considered for the still higher position of United States Supreme Court Justice? To me, she was truly a role model.
Miscellany: Christina Stinson (née Wong) — the daughter of a taxi driver who came to the United States from Shanghai, and an American-born nurse — grew up in modest circumstances, in a working-class neighborhood in the Inland Empire.
I was struck by the similarities in our backgrounds. We were both biracial women, half-Caucasian and half-Asian. We both grew up without much money. We both had mothers who were nurses.
Stinson and her husband, prominent Hollywood talent agent Robert Stinson, are nationally ranked in competitive ballroom dance. They live in San Marino, in an historical Spanish colonial revival home that they restored over a three-year period (featured in Architectural Digest). They have two children.
And then there were… the differences. I was not married to a rich and powerful talent agent — one who reportedly advanced his wife’s judicial candidacies through his strong political connections, built through successful fundraising (he chaired Bush’s California campaign in 2000 and 2004). I did not live in a mansion in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in America. And I was definitely not a competitive ballroom dancer; I’m actually something of a klutz.
I was so engrossed in my reading, and my daydreaming about California mansions and Oscar after-parties, that I didn’t notice we had landed. As soon as the pilot sounded the chime indicating that it was safe to remove our seat belts, passengers sprang to their feet and scrambled for the overhead bins. I reached into the footwell for my only piece of luggage, my briefcase-like purse (or my purse-like briefcase; a great piece of luggage, simultaneously businesslike and feminine).
The Asian woman stood up and turned to me.
“Are you going directly to your interview?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s at noon out in Pasadena.”
“Oh, you have plenty of time,” she said, looking down at her watch.
“That’s good to know. This was the earliest flight I could get. I scheduled for noon to build in some time in case we were delayed.”
“Very smart. You seem like someone who thinks ahead.”
(Of course, in my ideal world, I would have flown out to Los Angeles the night before and taken the earliest interview slot with Judge Stinson. On the first day of clerkship interviews, the earliest slots are the best; many judges, in the mad scramble for talent, make offers to the first few applicants they interview. But the flights yesterday were even more expensive, and flying out yesterday would have required spending a night in a hotel, which I could not afford.)
The woman smiled at me again and raised her hand in farewell.
“You should have plenty of time,” she said. “Good luck with your clerical work!”