Clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is something of a family affair for Wendy Collins Perdue, dean of the University of Richmond School of Law and current president of the Association of American Law Schools.
In 1978, Perdue clerked for Kennedy, who announced his retirement Wednesday, when she was fresh out of Duke Law School and he was a relative newcomer on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Her son William, a 2011 graduate of Yale Law School and current associate at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer, clerked for Kennedy at the high court just last year.
The dean has been a longtime supporter of Kennedy, even testifying in his 1987 confirmation hearing when she was a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Perdue credits Kennedy with giving her a chance to prove herself at a time when many other federal judges refused to hire female clerks. Yet Kennedy has hired relatively few female clerks overall. Fewer than 14 percent of Kennedy’s clerks since 2005 have been women—the lowest of any of the sitting justices—according to an analysis of Supreme Court clerk demographics last year by The National Law Journal Supreme Court correspondent Tony Mauro.
We caught up with Perdue to discuss Kennedy’s track record hiring women, her relationship with the justice, and what she learned from working with him. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Were you surprised at all by Kennedy’s retirement announcement yesterday?
I was disappointed, but not really surprised. I had no inside information, to be clear. But he held a clerks event last year that was a year early because it had typically been every five years and it was at four years instead. He said at that event, “I know people want to know if there is news, and there is news: The bar will remain open.” That was his nod in that direction. He has been doing this a long time and I guess he was ready to step back. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was primarily for personal reasons, not so much about, “I need to make sure the Republican Party has a nominee.”
You graduated from Duke Law School in 1978. Tell me about your bumpy path to a federal clerkship.
I interviewed with several judges on the D.C. Court of Appeals, then I had left to go to California [for a summer job with Morrison & Foerster]. One of the judges called my home and got my mother instead of me. She said, “No, Wendy’s not here.” They had this lovely little chat where the judge said, “We hope she’ll apply for the court law clerk position because we’d really like to get some women there. But I’m sure you can understand the judges aren’t comfortable hiring women as their personal clerks.” My mother immediately called me.
What was your reaction when you heard that?
I was pretty outraged and called the law school, thinking people there were my recommenders and would want to do something. I got a little more of the, “Well, you can understand …” At that point, the law school was not very inclined to try and do anything—not that there was much you could do.
Did you ever encounter sexism or discrimination in Kennedy’s chambers?
Not with Judge Kennedy. In fact, the year before me, he had also had a women clerk from Duke, Carolyn Kuhl. I never felt it was a problem. It never seemed to me that it occurred to him that it was a problem. He didn’t treat me any differently. He clearly didn’t have any concerns about hiring me. It’s what I would have expected from the world out there but didn’t always get in the 1970s.
And yet, we know that fewer than 14 percent of his Supreme Court clerks since 2005 have been women. Why do you think that is?
I really have no idea. I hope I didn’t scare him off from hiring women!
Did that statistic surprise you when it came out last fall?
The data didn’t surprise me, just because I had been to some clerk events where there were a lot of white men. I had seen the demographics in person. I have no view on whether he had developed some feeder [judges from the appeals courts], and they weren’t particularly diverse. I don’t know the answer to that.
What’s the most important lesson you learned from that clerkship?
In any clerkship, you’re learning an enormous amount about the law. It’s a fourth year of law school. I learned a lot from the justice—he’s still Judge Kennedy to me—about how to be a lawyer. He loved to go to lunch with his law clerks. We went to lunch with him a couple of times a week. He said he didn’t feel comfortable fraternizing a lot with the bar because of the role he was in. His chambers were not in the courthouse; they were in a separate office building, so he was pretty isolated. That meant he didn’t have a lot of other people to talk to besides his clerks, which was good for us.
He’s a great storyteller. He would talk about his practice, before he became a judge, and how he approached problems and interacted with clients. I lea[r]ned a lot from him as an experienced, thoughtful lawyer.
Your son, William, clerked for Kennedy in 2016. How did that come about?
He had clerked for Judge [ Jed] Rakoff in the Southern District [of New York] and Judge [Robert] Katzmann on the Second Circuit. Katzmann places a lot of his clerks with the Supreme Court, though none previous with Kennedy. He applied and got selected. I had no involvement in the selection process, other than to send a note to the justice saying, “You may get an application from one William Perdue, and yes, it’s the same Perdue.” He went through the standard process.
When he accepted my son for the clerkship, he called to reach him. Bill was traveling with his wife to Nepal at the time and couldn’t be reached. So [Kennedy] called me instead and said, “I just wanted to tell you I tried to reach your son and couldn’t reach him, but I’m offering him a clerkship.”
You heard from him again about your son, right?
He called me again about this time last year, totally out of the blue. He said, “I just wanted to tell you I so enjoyed working with Bill. He’s a terrific lawyer.” It struck me as a genuinely kind and thoughtful thing to do—to call someone’s mother and say, “Your son is really doing a good job.”
Did you ever compare clerkship notes with Bill?
Not much, because Bill was extremely careful about not discussing anything. Certainly during the clerkship and even this past year, he’s maintaining the appropriate, absolute confidentiality. Even with his mother.
Tell me about your testimony at Kennedy’s 1987 confirmation hearing.
I got a pretty last-minute call asking me to testify. At that point, I was nine months pregnant—my second son would be born about a week later. I hauled up to the Hill, stood up, got sworn in, and gave my testimony. It was brief. I asked my husband afterwards, “So what did you think?” He said, “Well, it was a pretty amazing profile.” [C-Span] had done a shot of all of us standing up and I was at the front end, in profile.