A year after taking over as clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court, Scott Harris is putting his stamp on the office with a major reorganization—including elimination of the historic position of chief deputy clerk.
The changes come in the part of the institution that affects court practitioners day-to-day as the main interface and resource for lawyers about the intricacies of court procedure.
The reorganization also coincides with the retirement Sept. 1 of Chris Vasil from the position of chief deputy, which he held since 2002. Before him, Francis Lorson was chief deputy from 1981 to 2002.
Lorson and Vasil both played outsized roles as the institutional memory of the court, discreet and knowledgeable civil servants who were ambassadors to the bar and made things go smoothly. For decades, “Call Frank Lorson” was the byword for lawyers who were unclear about a court rule or deadline.
When Lorson died in 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.—who was a frequent high court advocate before becoming chief justice—said at his memorial service, “We all needed Frank’s help.” Roberts described Lorson as a “quiet, unassuming man who had the charisma of one who knew what he was doing.”
Vasil in his own way continued in that tradition. “I think all agree that Chris Vasil is irreplaceable—as is suggested by the fact that no one person is replacing him,” said Charles Rothfeld, a veteran high court advocate at Mayer Brown.
The announcement about the reorganization of the clerk’s office stated that “Under the new structure, the position of Chief Deputy Clerk will be abolished.” No explanation was given, and Harris declined to comment.
Instead of a chief deputy, four deputy clerks with apparently equal rank will administer the different functions of the office.
Jordan “Danny” Bickell will serve in the new position of deputy clerk for practice and procedure, which will carry out some of the functions of the chief deputy. Those includes “the preparation of weekly conference lists, taking action on extensions of time to respond to petitions for writs of certiorari, and service as the primary point of contact for members of the Court’s bar with respect to questions of practice and procedure,” according to the announcement.
Bickell’s new title also means a temporary vacancy in the position of staff attorney for emergency applications—known informally as the “death clerk,” the court’s liaison with state officials and defense lawyers in the final hours before scheduled executions. Bickell held that position and will continue to perform those duties until the vacancy is filled.
Under the reorganization, Cynthia Rapp will continue to serve as deputy clerk for case management. Among her duties are oversight of the court’s electronic docketing system, preparation of the court’s journal, and the court’s original jurisdiction docket.
Gary Kemp will also remain as deputy clerk for administration, overseeing the file room, the public reception desk, and other administrative functions.
A newly created position of deputy clerk for case initiation will be filled by Jeffrey Atkins, who has been supervisor of the case analyst division. He’ll supervise the seven case analysts who review and process new case filings.
Mayer Brown’s Rothfeld predicts the reorganization won’t change its longstanding public-friendly reputation.
“The clerk’s office at the Supreme Court has a great tradition and is, as opposed to the clerks of other courts, almost uniquely knowledgeable, helpful, and user friendly. There is no reason to think that will change.”
Rothfeld added, “I just hope they continue to offer aspirin and the use of emergency sewing kits to arguing counsel.”