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

Published: Sunday, Dec. 26 2010 12:20 a.m. MST

That week, the sisters were teaching about the moral and health codes upheld by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — commitments that classmate John Smith, the contact, assured them he was already living.

"The missionaries were really excited because he was a really golden contact," Hannah said. "I went back to my dorm room and prayed really hard that he would join the church some day."

John remembers immediately recognizing in Hannah someone who both understood her faith and lived it diligently. She was easy to trust, he said, kind and understanding, factors that were important in a best friend, and in a spouse.

John continued to learn about the LDS faith from the missionaries and from Hannah, and was baptized during their junior year.

They dated for two years before both leaving on LDS missions - Hannah to Geneva, Switzerland and John to Kiev, Ukraine.

John now treasures a thick binder containing all of Hannah's encouraging letters. In each of their letters, Hannah and John also passed back and forth a separate piece of paper containing six drawn chessboards and drawn pieces.

"I'd make my move in all six games, include it in my letter, she'd read my letter, make her moves in the six games and send it back to me," John said.

They didn't complete the games during their missions, but soon after they got home they set one game at a time and finished them.

"She won three and I won three," John said with a laugh. "It was a nice token of how evenly matched we were."

For the newly married California native and the New Jersey convert, LDS-infused Provo was definitely a change of pace. Yet, the Smiths knew they were supposed to be at BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School.

"We really felt strongly that the law school would be a place where you could learn law in the spirit of faith," Hannah said. "We would be in an environment and taught and mentored by people like us, who lived their faith and who weren't going to sacrifice their values to get ahead."

They also knew they wanted to work with BYU law professor Cole Durham, whom John had met in Ukraine while on his mission. Durham was speaking at a conference on religious liberty and John, as assistant to the mission president, was assigned to help with translation. They spent a great deal of time talking about Durham's work in the realm of protecting religious liberty and John's interest was piqued.

"That turned out to be a really important relationship for us," Hannah said, adding the friendship continues today. "He is really a mentor to us."

"They are really just a remarkable couple," Durham said. "There are not a lot of students who make lasting impacts on a law school, but some things that they did continue to this day."

Like the monthly spiritual devotional called "Spirit of the Law" the Smiths organized, which allowed students to see a different side to their professors. Hannah also built much of the organizational structure for the annual International Law and Religion Conference, which has grown to include nearly 80 leaders and officials from around the world.

"Hannah was a super-star law student," said Utah Supreme Court Justice Thomas R. Lee, who at the time was teaching at BYU. "From the day she set foot on campus, I could tell she would be someone who would make an important mark on the legal profession. Since then she has met or exceeded those expectations."

And John excelled right along with her, going from their dual clerkship with Judge Samuel Alito on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court to private practice and later serving as an associate White House counsel for President Bush from 2006-09. John currently works as the attorney for the cyber security department of Raytheon, a defense company.

"I do feel particularly attached to those two," Durham said of the Smiths. "They were of tremendous service and I continue to benefit from things they're doing."

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