Video: General William K. Suter Speaks at South Texas College of Law

May 29th, 2013

2013-05-24_16-06-48_211The South Texas College of Law was in for a treat. Our commencement speaker was the Clerk of the United States, General William K. Suter. Kudos to Dean Don Guter for bringing Suter down. Last Friday, they held a conversation–“Suter and Guter.” Suter first came to South Texas in 1968 as a Captain to recruit for the JAG. He “snagged a few” from going into the Navy. It was very enlightening, as the General shared some fantastic stories.

How he was hired at the Court

He began by talking about his experience of applying to be the clerk of the Supreme Court. The most three important assets when applying for a job are “your friends, your friends, and your friends.” He was called in to interview with Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Scalia. His wife brought him to Nordstroms, to show him a a “wardrobe consultant.” When he arrived at Nordstroms, the consultant knew it was him. How? He was on time, and only military people are ever on time. Suter recalled that the consultant reminded him of Franck from “Father of the Bride.” He spent $6,000 on a suit that day. He went to interview with the three justices–O’Connor, Scalia, and Kennedy–and interviewed for an hour. Justice O’Connor, most senior, said thank you for coming today, noting “that’s a lovely suit.” O’Connor asked the Chief, “you know the real reason why he wants this job?” Rehnquist asked, “Why?” O’Connor said, “so he can continue his basketball career.” I fell into the job at the Court. The Chief bullied the other six into hiring him.

On Working at the Court

He noted that the Court is a wonderful place to work. “We thrive on two things–tradition and discipline.” We have a tradition, judges wear robes, people have titles, and you have discipline–you are supposed to do work and get it on time What does the Clerk of the Court do? In Brazil, the clerk of the Supreme Court is called the Secretary General. In Pennslyvania, it is the prothonotary (pronounced pra-tha-na-tary). Pro se plaintiffs who have their petitioners granted are given free transportation to and from the Court, including three meals!

On the Press

Suter: “Sometimes the press can be a little lazy.” I was surprised to none of the pro-se plaintiffs were given much attention. Geraldo was at Court on the day Bush v. Gore was argued. “He really has a big mustache.”

On The Supreme Court Bar

When you get the call from the Court that your petition was granted, the first thing you do is “faint.” We send you a care package. We advise you on your clothing. People from LA need help. We hold your hand through the entire process. There is one point of contact. We want you to be successful. After 1,700 arguments, I am so impressed with the legal profession. The quality of the briefs and arguments are top flight. The Justices are 5 feet from the lectern. They could reach out and place a writ of “habeas grabus” on you. Suter tells a story, where a Justice asked a lawyer what page in the appendix something was on. Seth Waxman slowly put the page under her nose so she could see it. “You will have a lot more fun if you consider your opponent your friend”

Who are the best advocates? Ken Starr, Seth Waxman, Ted Olson, Paul Clement (“you just gotta say, he’s good” and “he’s the nicest man you’ll ever meet” and “he’s a great American”). The best case I ever saw argued, I’ve seen 1700 total, was VMI case. Ted Olson argued for VMI. I told Ted, “that was the best case you ever argued.” Ted said, “I lost, 7-1.” He made a real case for it. The Second best case was on the losing said of Stolen Valor Act case, United States v. Alvarez. Verrilli did a fantastic job. After cases, Suter circles the sheet who he thinks is going to win.

Number one don’t. When you are arguing a case, and each has his/her arms folded, counting rosettes in ceiling. That’s a hint. They have finished. You should finish gracefully. Once a rookie was arguing, and there was no questions. Suter thought to himself, “Stop, you fool.” He stopped after 7 minutes. He won 9-0.

On Managing the Court

How has sequestration affected the Court? The Court is well managed. One line-item budget, total of $74 million a year. The lower courts, a total of $7 billion. The Supreme Court is not having trouble. About 85% of benefit is for salaries. We are very austere. We don’t blow money on things. We went through a ten-year renovation, it was done on time. We spend as little as we can. We want to be very independent, because we are an independent judiciary. Other than appointing new justice, and budget from Congress, we don’t really on outside for anything.

How are attorneys appointed? Circuit justice is responsible for finding lawyer, and rest of Justices agree. In Dickerson, the United States did not want to defend the judgment (it was Paul Cassel). THe Court appoints a lawyer to defend a judgment to show respect for that lower court. There’s no way to get on that list.

On the Justices

What Justice was the most impressive? “All 9 of them” One of the greatest Americans who ever lived was Louis Powell. He was too old to be drafted in WW II, but joined anyway. Served as intelligence officer in England, then worked in OSS. Served as head of ABA, worked to desegregate schools. Powell was asked twice to serve on SCOTUS, declined. Third time he was asked, he was told “Your country needs you again.” He was the most modest person. Just a plain, simple fellow, who did his job. He isn’t famous at all. He should be.

O’Connor continued to serve after death of CJ Rehnquist from September 2005-January 2006. The last day O’Connor sat, January 23, 2006 (case that dealt with bankruptcy and sovereign immunity), the vote was 5-4. O’Connor was in minority. All dissenters had to do was say “my opinion was not ready yet.” They could’ve held to reargue. They did not do that.

O’Connor wants to go fly-fishing in Wyoming in August!

The Court is misunderstood so often as a political entity. What difference does it make who appointed a Justice? 40% of opinions are unanimous. There is a lot of getting-along on the Court. They’re good friends They’re good professionals. They get things done.


Tough question about sexual assaults in military. We’ve had two wars going on. There are tensions in the commands. It’s tough. These are not movies. They make movies about war. They are plastic people from Hollywood. You have more women in the army. You have more women living together, cramped in places to live. You have sexual violence in colleges and universities. I am troubled by it. But I don’t think the quick fix is to pass some law. I say better training and education won’t always overcome what is going on. I’d love to have a military and society with no crime. It’s not going to happen. We work to try to make that happen, but it’s not possible. The way to fix it–swift and accurate trials, and punishment if warranted. I think it is troubling. I don’t think there is any quick fix.

Suter served with Elvis at basic training at Ft. Hood, Texas. There is a pic with both of them, with a”surly” curled-up lip.  I may be only person who knows Colin Powell and Elvis Presley.

Question: What keeps you up at night? Nothing. I’ve been happily married for 54 years. I was a “hick from Kentucky” and she was a “glamorous woman from Texas.” Met at Trinity University in Texas, and were married. Two children, four grandchildren. She was a school teacher after 24 years, taught all over the world.

When I wake up on September 1, it will be the first time I’m unemployed in over 50 years.

I did not have anything to do with pick the successor–that gives appearance of hanging on.

Are you going to write a book? Maybe, but it won’t be the book you want to read. It would be incredibly boring, but will be filled with little stories. It won’t be like the Brethren. I would never violate a confidence. The other branches have offices that specialize in leaks.