Thanks to Joni Mitchell and my Supreme Court co-clerks

by Rob Tiller

Happy Thanksgiving! I’m so thankful for Joni Mitchell, whose beautiful album Blue we listened we listened to last night. I’m still new enough to Spotify to find it marvelous to have instant access to such gorgeousness.

Blue is a unique shade of blue. Our experience of art depends on what we bring to it, of course, and my experience of Blue is rich in nostalgia for Paris, where I first heard it my friend Greg’s place in the Latin Quarter on his little cassette tape player. But I loved it just as much when it was new.

Notes of sadness, loneliness, and longing are balanced with joy and exhilaration. Yet it doesn’t seem calculated. It seems like a soul that’s seeking another soul, completely and almost frighteningly honest. Joni seems so vulnerable, and takes so many risks, that it’s unsettling. At the same time, it’s so sweet and true. Truly, I’m thankful for Joni and Blue.

Apropos of nostalgia and gratitude, I had another heavy dose week before last when I reunited in D.C. with my fellow Supreme Court clerks at the Court to honor one of our number, Justice Elena Kagan. In 1987, when I was one year out of law school, I won the lottery and got picked to join this extremely gifted group as a clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia.

The clerkship was a great honor, but also terrifying. Clerks are tasked with constantly and quickly mastering new areas of law without glitches that could lead to major policy errors or loss of life. This is not hyperbole. The death penalty docket involved review of cases a few hours before scheduled executions, which carries with it a level of responsibility that can cause severe sleeping problems.
During that year, the coin of the realm was legal knowledge and reasoning, and in these my co-clerks were often brilliant in a way I often found humbling. Fortunately my class was not only fearsomely bright but also distinguished by a high rate of decency, fellow feeling, and good humor.

Saturday afternoon, Justice Kagan led a tour of the Court for a dozen or so of us. As she observed, the Court was the same, or at least much the same. It was fun catching up on everyone’s doings. As we were entering the courtroom, I asked Elena if Justice Scalia was treating her all right, and she told me about going hunting with him. In her chambers, the technology seemed upgraded, and she had three computer screens. However, she said she could only use two of them at a time. Elena has a great smile and a great laugh, and was full of warmth and charm.
We had dinner that night at the Court, where more old friends showed up. Teresa Roseborough, who was our wonderful organizer-in-chief, had a slide show of us looking younger, and asked us each to stand up and give a story about our time at the Court.

There were many good stories. I reminisced about the basketball games on the highest court in the land. I was one of the less skilled players, but was still made to feel welcome. I noted that Elena and I had once scrambled for the same loose ball and our two heads had collided hard. It really hurt! Fortunately we didn’t sustain any serious damage. To think that I could have caused a head injury that would have changed the course of history!