I love to see people doing the right thing, and I love to see virtue rewarded, so I love this story. It’s a law story, so I imagine that it will resonate more with people who are lawyers, but I hope everyone can appreciate it.
This is a story I heard from Thiru Vignarajah.
I’ve mentioned that recently, I attended the “Clerks at 100” event, a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of the statute that created the Supreme Court clerkships, organized by the National Constitution Center.
As part of that celebration, several panels were presented, and I was on a panel called “Life After Clerking” made up of people talking about their careers post-clerkship.
After I spoke about my career after clerking for Justice O’Connor, Thiru Vignarajah spoke. I’d never met Thiru before, but his story is fascinating. He’s the son of immigrants from Sri Lanka and grew up in Baltimore. After Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Harvard Law Review, he clerked for Judge Calabresi on the Second Circuit and for Supreme Court Justice Breyer. He did a bunch of other things like being a prosecutor, an Assistant U.S. attorney, and now he’s running for Mayor of his hometown of Baltimore.
During his presentation on the panel, he told a story about something that happened during his clerkship with Judge Calabresi, something that made a big impression on him.
I was so moved by this story that I got choked up, right there in front of the audience. The next day, at the big dinner for the clerks, I looked everywhere for Thiru and begged him, “Tell me again, tell me the story again,” I loved this story so much.
Then, to my great joy, I realized I can listen to him tell the story as often as I want, because it’s posted on C-SPAN!
But before I play Thiru’s story for you, I want to give a bit of background for non-lawyers.
Thiru explains that he was a law clerk to Judge Guido Calabresi of the Second Circuit. If you don’t happen to know the backstory of all the federal judges, I will explain that Guido Calabresi is a legendary person. He’s an eminent legal scholar who’s considered one of the founders of the field of law and economics. He has been on the Yale Law School faculty for sixty years, where he also served as Dean. My husband Jamie and I were lucky to be students there when he was Dean, and he was a famous dean. He was beloved, he was effective, he was the kind of person who was highly respected and yet would dress up as an elf during the holidays. (In my mind, he’s literally wearing tights and a jester cap, but I may have embellished that!) He’s also a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which is where Thiru was clerking for him. Despite all these accolades, Guido insists that everyone call him “Guido,” as you will hear.
Thiru also mentions that the litigant was “pro se.” “Pro se” is Latin for “in one’s own behalf,” and it’s the legal term for people who represent themselves, instead of having a lawyer. This is almost always a very bad idea. Lawyers don’t represent themselves pro se. So when someone goes pro se, it’s usually the sign of an unsophisticated person, who isn’t good at taking advice, and will probably lose their case.
Here’s Thiru—he starts his story about minute 47.
What a thrilling story. The Justice Department lawyer was arguing about a particular provision of the law, to uphold the law, and that's the right thing to do. But that lawyer also recognized that while the litigant deserved to lose this case, that litigant nevertheless might deserve asylum under a different provision. And the Justice Department didn’t just want to win; the lawyer wanted justice to prevail. And the court saw that, and acknowledged it, and the lawyer got letter of commendation from Judge Guido Calabresi.
It’s beautiful to see people behave justly, and it’s beautiful to see virtue recognized and praised. Virtue doesn’t always get rewarded! It’s thrilling when it happens.