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Impressions of a Law Clerk’s Wife, 1930

Beginning in the 1890s, members of the Supreme Court were invited as special guests to two annual White House functions dedicated to the judicial branch. One was a small dinner for the Supreme Court justices and their wives, often billed as the “Dinner for the Chief Justice and the Supreme Court.” The other was a white tie reception for the “Judiciary,” which included the justices, local D.C. judges, the Solicitor General, the Attorney General and top Justice Department staff, and members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committee. Law clerks to the justices were invited to this larger reception as well.

Thanks to a letter penned by the wife of Justice George Sutherland’s clerk, we have a lively eyewitness account of the judicial reception hosted by President and Mrs. Hoover on December 12, 1930. Ellis Musser, the wife of Francis R. Kirkham, wrote home to Salt Lake City to tell her mother about their glamorous evening at the White House. Francis and Ellis had grown up in Salt Lake City and moved to D.C. in 1928 so they could both earn their B.A. from George Washington University. Francis continued on to complete his J.D. in 1931 but was hired by Justice Sutherland, also from Utah, while he was still attending night law school. Francis clerked for Sutherland for the 1930-1933 Terms.

In her letter, Ellis included candid descriptions of her husband’s employer and of the other justices. She refers to Francis as “Czar” –a nickname he earned as a boy because of his strong leadership qualities.

Dearest Family Last night was the Pres. and Mrs. Hoover’s Reception. Czar and I ventured forth at 8:30—he arrayed in a rental frock coat—a white bow tie—a shine & a borrowed overcoat, & I resplendent in my pink silk lace dress which has been lengthened ‘till it reaches the floor, my hair behind my ears, the crystals Czar gave me for Easter the year I was at Mills [College], long white gloves & crystal ear rings borrowed from Ruth Knudsen & the deep rose short velvet jacket borrowed from Jo.

We taxied to the East entrance of the White House—very happy & a little scared.

It was simply gorgeous—Footmen were posted at the entrance to open the cab door and help one out—The interior of the white House is like a king’s palace in all its splendor—We danced in the Gold Room to music played by the marine band.

Mrs. Hoover has white hair, short & parted in the middle & she does look something like you except that you are far more attractive than she is. Her two large front upper teeth are lightly apart. She wears a dark powder blue lace dress with a long train & long white gloves & greeted everyone with a sweet smile and a mere How do you do.” Everyone there was talking about how charming Mrs. Coolidge was. I guess she surely has made a reputation for herself.

We chatted with Justice Sutherland & I was introduced by Czar to Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes—he has the prettiest straight white teeth—maybe they’re false. Justice [James C.] McReynolds, a bachelor & a former Senator [he was Attorney General not Senator], held my hand and called me “little woman” SCOTUS Scoop: Impressions of a Law Clerk’s Wife, 1930 & told me I was taking good care of Czar or something like that & Justice [Pierce] Butler, the former millionaire railroad attorney said “My its hot in here.” So I said that I guessed we were more thrilled than he was… & he said it’s because I had youth—he was too old & no longer thrilled & then we said that well, youth was all we had & he said “You have years, when your years are gone, then you have nothing.” It was awfully impressive—he was holding my hand & smiling so intimately. All the justices are fine big men over 6 ft. tall.

I was walking on air all that night—imagine—Czar and I rubbing shoulders with the most famous men in America. The President’s attaches with golded braid added more splendor to the gorgeous spectacle in the Gold Room….

After three terms clerking for Justice Sutherland, Kirkham was asked by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes to stay on to help him with administrative matters in the 1934 Term and to co-author a handbook for lawyers about Supreme Court practice titled Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States. According to the preface of the book, Ellis volunteered on the project as well: “Ellis S. Musser has prepared the table of cases and has contributed other valuable and painstaking work in the preparation of the manuscript.” Pillsbury Madison & Sutro hired Francis in 1936 and the couple moved to San Francisco. (Francis would go on to serve as general counsel from 1960 to 1970 of the company now called Chevron Corporation.) Sutherland replaced Francis with another clerk from Salt Lake City with a George Washington University law degree, John W. Cragun. When it came time to find a clerkship for Ellis’s younger brother, Milton Musser, who was attending night law school at George Washington, the Kirkhams decided to turn to the irascible Justice McReynolds, who had a hard time keeping clerks. Thanks to their lobbying campaign from San Francisco, Milton became the third Supreme Court clerk from Utah, serving for the 1938 and 1939 Terms.

SCOTUS Scoop: Impressions of a Law Clerk’s Wife, 1930 — Francis R. Kirkham's paycheck for writing a lawyers' handbook about Supreme Court practice

Pictured are Ellis Musser and the paycheck her husband, Francis R. Kirkham, received for co-authoring, at the request of Chief Justice Hughes, a handbook for lawyers about Supreme Court practice as well as a treatise addressing amendments to bankruptcy laws during the Depression.

Credits:, National Archives

SCOTUS Scoop: Impressions of a Law Clerk’s Wife, 1930 — Ellis Musser