Supreme Court Clerk Memories

January 1, 2010
Julia Ambrose

Serving as the swing vote on a closely divided Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor regularly made decisions affecting millions of lives. For Julia Ambrose, one of Justice O’Connor’s life-altering decisions came in 1994.

Julia was studying for one of her 3L exams when the news arrived that she had been accepted as a clerk for Justice O’Connor. “That was pretty much it for the night,” Julia recalled. “There was no more studying for that exam.” The joy of being selected as a Supreme Court law clerk was sweetened by the symbolism of being a female attorney chosen by the first female Justice of the Supreme Court.

During the year in which Julia served as clerk, Justice O’Connor cast the deciding vote in the landmark case of United States v. Lopez, which held that Congress exceeded its authority by making it a federal offense to possess a firearm in a school zone. The decision marked a turning point in the court’s interpretation of the Commerce Clause, setting a sharper limit to federal power over the states. The Court also heard cases that year involving the voting rights act, the admission of women to the Virginia Military Institute and the First Amendment protections for advertising.

“It was all in a very positive atmosphere,” Julia said of the challenging term. “The group of clerks I served with were all very collegial.”

Having already gained perspective from behind the bench, Julia has spent much of her time in private practice on the other side of the courtroom. She has extensive experience in trial and appellate courts with antitrust litigation, as well as cases involving products liability. She has also played an active role in First Amendment cases, helping to draft amicus briefs in a prominent appeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s indecency regulations.

“I considered going into teaching,” Julia said of her post-Supreme Court career. “But I wanted to be engaged with real cases involving real problems for real clients.”

Still, Julia has maintained her interest in the broader questions of law, reveling in the research and writing for appellate briefs and complex litigation.

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