Jonathan Urick vividly remembers the last time he and his fellow law clerks saw their boss, U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia.
“We were in chambers talking before he went on his trip to Texas,” Urick said. “We were laughing and joking. He was in very high spirits, making jokes.”
When the news came of his death a few days later, Urick recalled, “I was utterly devastated and completely shocked. It was and still is hard to believe.”
Ten months later, Urick is a new associate at McGuireWoods in Richmond—one of seven former Supreme Court clerks working at the firm. He is the first of Scalia’s final four law clerks to publicly speak about his time in Scalia chambers that ended abruptly after the justice’s death on Feb. 13.
“It was incredibly surreal in the moment,” Urick said. “I think about him every single day.”
Until Scalia’s death, “the year was going well, everything was normal,” Urick said. “We were having the typical vibrant exchanges with the justice that all his clerks have described in obituaries.” Urick declined to answer questions about Scalia’s health, except to remark that “I can absolutely say that during our time with the justice, he was as vibrant and sharp intellectually as ever. Tangling with Justice Scalia was like playing chess with a grandmaster. There was no sign of any diminishment whatever.”
Urick had prior experience clerking for other judges known as taskmasters: Jeffrey Sutton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and Amul Thapar of the Eastern District of Kentucky. Sutton was a former Scalia clerk, and Thapar is on President-elect Donald Trump’s list of possible Supreme Court nominees. Urick said Sutton was one of the first people who called him after Scalia’s death. “He gave me complete emotional support” as did the entire family of Scalia clerks, Urick said.
Urick said he and the other Scalia clerks returned to work the Monday after the justice’s death. “The court’s business marched on,” Urick said, though Scalia’s votes and draft opinions were null and void the moment he died.
Soon, though, the court’s tradition of taking care of “orphaned” law clerks when their justices died meant that Urick and his fellow clerks would be working again. Justice Clarence Thomas added Urick and Taylor Meehan to his four clerks, while Justice Samuel Alito Jr. hired Sopan Joshi and Michael Kenneally for the remainder of the term.
“I am forever grateful to Justice Thomas,” Urick said. “He was very adamant that when Taylor and I joined his chambers, we were absolutely 100 percent Thomas clerks.” Soon they were working on merits cases side by side with Thomas’s clerks. “Justice Thomas thought it was a blast to have six clerks.” Perhaps as a result, Thomas last term wrote 39 total opinions, including concurrences and dissents—twice as many as the next most prolific justice.
A highlight of the term came a few weeks after Scalia’s death, when Thomas asked a series of questions at oral argument—the first time in a decade he had done so. “We had no warning,” Urick said. “We were as shocked as everybody else.”
As the term wound down, Urick was the first Scalia clerk of the term to leave the court. He departed on July 1, partly because he had to take the Virginia bar exam.
Urick interviewed with several firms and decided to go with McGuireWoods. One reason, he said, was the “really stellar group of former Supreme Court law clerks” at the firm. John Adams, co-chairman of the firm’s appellate practice and a former Supreme Court clerk himself, said Urick’s arrival is “a testament to the strength and reputation of our appeals practice, and we know there are great things ahead for him.”
As for the other Scalia clerks from last term, Meehan landed at Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott. Kenneally is at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Joshi was hired by Kirkland & Ellis.
Because of his clerkship, Urick is barred from Supreme Court work for two years, but he said he is already busy with a variety of other appellate matters. And as he works, Urick said he has the lessons learned from Scalia and Thomas—as well as Sutton and Thapar—front of mind.
“Every single day I try to write like them,” Urick said. Scalia’s lesson for Urick, he added, was “his absolute intellectual rigor—being extremely thorough. And an obsession with getting the right legal answer.”