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

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

This summer, John accompanied Durham to Ukraine to further work on religious liberty, and Durham said he would love to do more work in France, relying on Hannah's language and legal expertise.

"Not only does she have the intellectual firepower and background to understand the issues, but she's also plugged in to a variety of networks that keep her in touch with the rising generation that is going to be in leadership all over the country within a decade or so. She is in a really good position to bring sort of a sense of emerging perspectives to what the (Deseret News Editorial Advisory) board thinks about."

After three years of studying and discussing law together at BYU, the Smiths applied for clerkships with Alito on the 3rd Circuit Court in Newark, New Jersey.

Knowing it was a long shot, they prayed fervently that one of them would get an offer, and the other would at least get a job in the same city.

"We were overjoyed when he extended offers to both of us to be clerks at the same time" Hannah said. "It was hard to get a circuit court clerk (position) for one person, let alone for two with the same judge."

For a year the couple lived in their clerk offices, reading cases, writing legal arguments and discussing decisions with Judge Alito, whom Hannah described as a "great boss."

Upon finishing, the couple moved to Washington, D.C., and dived into private practice, while Hannah prepared for her upcoming clerkship with Justice Clarence Thomas.

"The conventional saying is that getting a Supreme Court clerkship is like getting struck by lighting," she joked.

Yet thanks to glowing letters of recommendation from former law professors and e Alito and her beefy resume, Hannah began clerking for Justice Thomas in 2003. She spent her days reviewing cases, preparing bench memos for upcoming oral arguments and going to working lunches with the Justice and the three other law clerks.

After the term, Hannah slipped back into private practice, just months before Alito was named by then-President George W. Bush to fill Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's vacancy on the Supreme Court.

Elated, Alito's former clerks banded together and began nomination-support efforts, which included media interviews and meetings with key senators.

Hannah remembers traveling with John to swing-states South Dakota, Nebraska and Maine in the freezing cold to meet with senators and staff to encourage them to support the nomination.

It paid off, and Alito was sworn in January 2006. To help get up-to-speed in the middle of the term, he asked two former clerks to return. Hannah was one of them.

"Hannah was helping him set things up when he was first named, which I think says something about how good she is," Durham said.

Yet it was a difficult decision, because by now, Hannah was a mother. Little Gladys had been born in September, a month before Alito's nomination.

The Smiths' period of prayerful consideration was resolved when Hannah's mother, Jane, volunteered to come stay with Gladys for the six months of Hannah's half-term clerkship.

"It was really an amazing opportunity, to go back and be at the court a second time," Hannah said. "It's such a rare thing to be there at all, then to go back for a second time, be able to work for somebody like Justice Alito ... especially knowing that my daughter was in very, very loving, capable hands."

It was a long six months of "very intense" days, as Hannah describes them, but mentally invigorating to consider brand new legal questions and unique cases.

"Judge Alito would often come over to the law clerks' office and sit down and talk about cases, asking us our opinions on the cases or other pending matters," she said.

And her opinion was highly valued.

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