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Supreme Court’s Gen. Suter is retiring – again

July 03, 2013

The spring that William K. Suter started as Clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justices decided contentious cases involving nude dancing ( Barnes v. Glen Theatre ), lawyer discipline ( Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada ), federal funding for groups doing abortion counseling ( Rust v. Sullivan ), and application of the Voting Rights Act to Louisiana Supreme Court elections ( Chisom v. Roemer ).

Each end of Term since then has kept the 1962 Tulane Law School graduate just as busy. But his job running the Clerk's office actually is a year-round challenge. The office processes thousands of petitions for review annually, maintains the docket, coordinates briefs and guides lawyers through the very precise rules and procedures for presenting their cases to the justices.

After 22 years, Suter in retiring at the end of August, and June 26 was his last day to take his place in the grand courtroom for the announcement of opinions.

The Justices had struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act the day before ( Shelby County v. Holder ).

And they closed out the Term with two momentous rulings that moved forward the cause of same-sex marriage: U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry.

But the last order of business was for Chief Justice John Roberts to thank the retired Army General who was making his second retirement, this time as Clerk of the Court.

Suter "has sat next to the bench for the past 22 years and has heard more than 1,700 arguments," Roberts said. "General  Suter had a distinguished military career before coming to the court, and he will retire from this position with more than 51 years of government service."

Suter started at the Supreme Court Feb. 1, 1991, after a celebrated career with the U.S. Army in which he rose to the rank of Major general and led the Judge Advocate staff.

He called it an honor to work at the Supreme Court, "a place where we settle disputes peacefully, rather than in the streets." Serving as Clerk, he said, was "the apex to a career for a lawyer, to be just a very small part of a place that works."

The court is a place of discipline and tradition, Suter said. An example: to make operations more efficient, the in-house technology staff developed an automated online docket for tracking case developments -- yet lawyers who argue before the justices still receive a souvenir quill pen.

Asked what people might not realize about the justices, he said, "They are real people. They are very, very bright. They are hard-working. They're kind. They're generous."

Suter, 75, attended Tulane Law School on an academic scholarship after getting his undergraduate degree at Trinity University in San Antonio on a basketball scholarship. He arrived in New Orleans newly married and already had gone through Reserve Officers' Training Corps training at Fort Hood while Elvis Presley was there.

Suter and his wife, Jeanie, lived on South Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, he recalled, and entertainment included Saturday oyster cookouts, intramural sports and music at Preservation Hall.

In the classroom, though, "they really pounded us," he said. First-year students attended Contracts class with the legendary Professor Mitchell Franklin at 8 a.m. Monday through Saturday. His first piece for the law review went through 11 drafts (and his student editor was Jacques Wiener, now a Senior Judge on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals).

JAG lawyering took Suter to Alaska, Thailand and Vietnam, where he handled primarily criminal cases, according to a 2011 ABA Journal profile.

Later, he was staff judge advocate with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., when Gen. Colin Powell commanded one of its brigades.

One of Suter's best lessons came early on, he said. While at Fort Knox, he learned to drive tanks and be a platoon leader. "It made us better officers," he said. "We understood what our clients were doing."

In his Guide for Counsel on the Supreme Court's website, Suter includes "Know your client's business" as a guideline and recounts the lawyer who was prepared when a justice asked during oral argument, "What is the difference between beer and ale?"
Suter received a Bronze Star and Distinguished Service Medal for his work in Vietnam. His assignments after that included working at the Pentagon; commanding the JAG School; and serving as chief judge of the Army's appellate court. Nominated by President George H.W. Bush to be Supreme Court Clerk, Suter was Acting Judge Advocate General when he retired from the Army in 1991.

Former U.S. Solicitor General Ken Starr said Suter "brought to the nation's highest court a formidable set of skills -- high intelligence, rock-ribbed integrity, vast legal experience, extraordinary efficiency and a winsome, charming personality."

Starr, now Baylor University president, added that "Advocates greatly admire and enormously respect this giant among us. Along his remarkable journey of distinguished public service in civilian life, Bill also became a singularly well-informed, insightful observer and engaging student of the most important tribunal in the world."

Tulane Law Dean David Meyer first met Suter as a new law clerk to Justice Byron White during Suter's second year as Clerk of the Court.

"General Suter had the respect and ultimately the affection of every law clerk in the building," Meyer recalled.  "He was incredibly accomplished -- a decorated Vietnam veteran who had run the Army JAG Corps -- and yet he was also one of the warmest, most down-to-earth people in all of Washington. As I later came to understand, this combination is classically Tulane." 

Suter's portrait was unveiled in June at a going-away party (privately funded, he pointed out) and will hang in the hallway outside the clerk's office, a fitting tribute to a distinguished career of public service.

William K. Suter

Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States


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