Hannah Clayson Smith: Two-time Supreme Court clerk balances legal endeavors with motherhood

Published: Saturday, Dec. 25 2010 10:00 p.m. MST

Hannah Clayson Smith

Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If you count sixth-grade assignments, Hannah Clayson Smith could argue she really became an attorney at the age of 12.

After her debate coach, Mr. Fraleigh, assigned her the role of lawyer for their mock trial, she went home and eagerly built diagrams and poster-board mock-ups for the case.

"I think that was the bug that bit me," Smith told the Deseret News from her home in Dallas. "I knew that I wanted to do something in the law ... pretty early on, and it never really went away."

Smith's ambition, sharp mind and dedication to what would often be long hours and strenuous weeks propelled her from a prestigious select major at Princeton to the decorous chambers of the U.S Supreme Court and finally to the rigorous demands of motherhood.

Today, she carries the distinction of being one of the few people who have clerked twice for the Supreme Court and is praised in legal circles for her dedication to protecting religious liberties.

Yet for Smith, the focus was never on the six-figure salaries obtainable by most Supreme Court clerks, nor the distinction associated with a big-name law firm.

Today she happily works "very part-time" from home as legal counsel for the Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest law firm aimed at defending religious liberty, serves on the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board and spends the rest of her time going for walks in the park and building Play-Doh animals with her children Gladys, Lucy and George.

"There are so many people like me in the world today who have similar values," said Smith, 37. "They value family, value their faith, value putting their family first. I've actually received a lot of support from others who similarly want to find a way to balance their life's mission and their life's passion in their profession with their desire to put their family first."

Even as a child growing up in California, Hannah had a brilliant mind, says her sister Jane Clayson Johnson, a renowned broadcast journalist who also serves on the paper's advisory board.

"I remember when she was in preschool, 4 years old, and she made a number line that went up into six or seven hundred," Johnson said. "She was always very advanced."

While in high school, Smith edited the yearbook, played violin in the Sacramento Youth Symphony and stayed busy with service, even organizing a Thanksgiving Day food drive for the local homeless shelter and food bank as a junior in high school.

"The things that she did very early on I'm sure were encouraged by my parents and my family...but more than anything, she did it herself," Johnson said.

Her dad, Karl, was a surgeon and her mom, Jane, stayed at home with the children, Jane, Hannah and younger brother, David, teaching them music and organizing string quartet performances. David died at age 11 of a brain tumor, leaving 12-year-old Smith with a greater sense of compassion for those with terminal illnesses.

At 19, Smith headed east for college, carrying with her a growing interest in debate as well as a fascination with public policy and education.

Her acceptance into the prestigious Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton meant she could create her own major, combining classes from politics, sociology and economics to focus on education reform policy with a minor in a teacher preparation program.

One of her classes, "The Politics of Civil Liberties," was taught by Robert George, a renowned conservative thinker and one of Smith's mentors who also joins her on the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board.

During her first year at Princeton, Smith was approached by the sister missionaries in her LDS ward, who asked if she'd come participate in the teaching of a fellow classmate.

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