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A Tale of the Supreme Court's Two S(o)uters

Retired major-general tames the Court's torrent of paperwork, facilitates petition filing, coaches lawyers, and ribs justices

BEFORE it gets to Souter, a case in the United States Supreme Court goes to Suter.

The nine justices of the Supreme Court, including Associate Justice David Souter, ultimately decide if the court will hear a case. But before any petition, brief, or other filing reaches the justices, it must pass muster with William Suter, the clerk of America's highest court.

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``Pass muster'' is used advisedly, for Mr. Suter is a former major-general in the Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) corps. While he is genial and outgoing, Suter has the commitment to discipline and standards, and the adherence to procedure of a man who served in the military for 28 years until his retirement in 1991.

Suter and his staff of 30, including four lawyers, are sticklers when it comes to enforcing the Supreme Court's paperwork rules. But that's not because they are bureaucrats, he insists. Systemization is the only way the clerk's office can efficiently process more than 7,000 appeals from decisions in the lower federal courts and state supreme courts that the high court receives each year, Suter says.

Right down to captions

``Our rules are very strict, even down to things like captions,'' Suter acknowledges. ``But they're that way for a good reason - they facilitate the court's handling of all the documents.''

``It's in litigants' best interest to get their petitions filed properly, so they can get action taken on their case as soon as possible,'' he adds.

While the clerk's staff adheres to every jot and tittle of the rules, ``we are very service-oriented in helping attorneys'' comply with the requirements, Suter says. Members of the staff take dozens of phone calls each day about the rules. And when the office returns a nonconforming petition for more work, it preserves the original filing date.

The clerk is one of four statutory officers who manage the operations of the Supreme Court. The others are the marshal, who is responsible for maintenance and security (he has an 80-member police force); the court librarian; and the reporter of decisions.

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Although the clerk's job is primarily administrative, Suter, an experienced litigator, says, ``I would not want to have this job and not be a lawyer. You understand the rules of practice and procedure better as a lawyer, and you need to know something about the rules of the lower courts. It's a specialized field, but it requires a lawyer to do it.'' Besides managing the court's Niagara of paperwork, Suter works with the justices in revising the rules. He swears-in lawyers who are being admitted to argue before the Supreme Court, using a Bible that has been at the court since 1808. And he serves as a den mother for lawyers who are appearing before the justices for the first time.

``There is a cadre of lawyers, mostly here in Washington, who do a lot of work in this court,'' Suter says. ``But most attorneys don't come here in their whole career; if they do, they come just once. It's a big day for them.

``So when the lawyers get here on argument days, I gather them in the lawyers' lounge and give them a briefing on what to expect. I try to put them at ease. Some of them are a little bit hyper. I have to get a spatula to get them off the ceiling,'' Suter says with a laugh.

Asked if his military service is applicable to his second career, Suter says that, by the time he worked his way up to become the Army's second-highest-ranking JAG officer, he was ``managing a lot of lawyers and other people, a lot of dollars, a lot of equipment, and a lot of cases.'' In running the clerk's office, he says, he has drawn on lessons he learned in the Army about forward planning.

High-tech connections

As an example, he cites the procedures he has put in place to handle emergency requests that come to the court. These include requests for last-minute stays of execution for death-row inmates, and a request to stay the transfer of Baby Jessica in that famous child-custody battle. Sometimes a single justice can act on such a request, but in other instances, like death-penalty stays, all the justices traditionally are consulted. This may require contacting all the members of the court in the middle of the night or when they are on vacation.

Two years ago Suter hired an additional lawyer to help respond to such requests. And he has set up an extensive network to facilitate reaching the justices. ``We've got couriers all lined up, we're all ready to go with faxes, beepers, direct-line telephones. That's the military in me....''

Asked how much contact he has with the justices, Suter says he talks frequently with them about docket-scheduling or fields questions about the rules.

And sometimes, he adds, they talk about misdelivered mail.

``Justice Souter and I rib each other about the similarities of our names,'' Suter says.

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