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

Published: Sunday, Oct. 4 2015 11:06 p.m. MDT

Hannah Clayson Smith (Ravell Call, Deseret News) 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.

Hannah Clayson Smith, right, her husband, John, and daughter Gladys with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.  (Provided by Hannah Clayson Smith) Hannah Clayson Smith, right, her husband, John, and daughter Gladys with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. (Provided by Hannah Clayson Smith)

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."

Hannah Clayson Smith__Hannah Clayson Smith, right, her husband, John, and daughter Gladys with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.  (Provided by Hannah Clayson Smith) Hannah Clayson Smith__Hannah Clayson Smith, right, her husband, John, and daughter Gladys with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. (Provided by Hannah Clayson Smith)

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.

Hannah Clayson Smith__Hannah Clayson Smith, right, her husband, John, and daughter Gladys with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.  (Provided by Hannah Clayson Smith) Hannah Clayson Smith__Hannah Clayson Smith, right, her husband, John, and daughter Gladys with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. (Provided by Hannah Clayson Smith)

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.

Hannah Clayson Smith__Hannah Clayson Smith, right, her husband, John, and daughter Gladys with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.  (Provided by Hannah Clayson Smith) Hannah Clayson Smith__Hannah Clayson Smith, right, her husband, John, and daughter Gladys with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. (Provided by Hannah Clayson Smith)

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.

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.

Hannah Clayson Smith__Hannah Clayson Smith, right, her husband, John, and daughter Gladys with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.  (Provided by Hannah Clayson Smith) Hannah Clayson Smith__Hannah Clayson Smith, right, her husband, John, and daughter Gladys with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. (Provided by Hannah Clayson Smith)

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."

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.

"She is a remarkably talented person — very smart, articulate, interesting and engaging," Justice Alito wrote in a statement to the Deseret News. "I have the highest admiration for her ability and her character — and her wonderful family, her husband John, who also clerked for me, and her children Gladys, Lucy and George."

During one visit to the Supreme Court, Johnson recalls talking with Justice Thomas

"I remember him saying to me, 'Your sister has a brilliant mind, but she also has such compassion for people,'" Johnson recalled. "I just love that quote. I love that thought."

With two Supreme Court clerkships under her belt, Hannah left the high court, mulling offers of six-figure salaries and six-figure bonuses from private D.C.-based firms.

Though tempting, "I just felt really strongly that I needed to be at home with my child, to give her my full attention," she said.

Hannah also turned down an offer to work with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, though she loved their focus. She agreed that the founder, Seamus Hasson, would call her again in a year, which he did, and this time, they discussed details.

She told him she needed flexibility and the ability to work from home, especially because she was pregnant with her second child.

He agreed and told her they'd do whatever she wanted.

"It was really a wonderful offer," she said. "And I felt like the Lord's hand was in this (because) I felt that the Lord had given us a lot of opportunities along the way to develop this expertise in religious liberty, and I felt it was something that I could do that would join together my legal expertise and my interest in helping forward the mission of the church."

The Becket Fund is a non-partisan, public-interest law firm that handles religious liberty litigation, defending both individuals and churches that have had their religious rights threatened, Smith explained.

With an agreement that her work would not intrude on family needs, Hannah began working part-time in September 2007.

Thanks to technology, she serves entirely from home as an advisor, editor and mentor, sharing her legal expertise and insights on a variety of cutting-edge cases.

When she's not writing briefs or clarifying arguments, she's driving kids to preschool and volunteering in their classrooms. There are also trips to the zoo and puppet shows at the local children's theater. On the weekends, the Smith children soak up time with dad and take family walks.

And on those rare evenings when the children are in bed early and mom and dad get some precious time alone, the Smiths often discuss family history, as Hannah is a "prodigious" family researcher, said John.

"What I appreciate about it, is that she finds ways to make it relevant to our kids who are still young," John said. Like this past November, when Hannah made pilgrim and Mayflower figurines to tell the Thanksgiving story, which included details from the lives of the Smith and Clayson ancestors.

"She had their attention for a whole 20 minutes," John said. "She is always (thinking about) how to package something and present something so it's accessible and educational for them. I'm very grateful that her skills in advocacy and explanation have ready application in our home with our children."

While Hannah's children may not fully realize the depth of their mother's legal expertise, nor how much she is respected by those she's worked with and for, they know of her love, John says, especially when she greets them with enthusiastic hugs and hellos each morning and each time they come back from preschool.

"I'm really grateful that the Becket Fund has been so good to me," Hannah said. "(They've) permitted me to keep my hand in this really vital work of defending religious liberty while at the same time, putting my family first."

e-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company