In January of 2003, Matt Nee returned to the Ohio Supreme Court. By that time, he had graduated from law school, passed the bar, was a lawyer in good standing with the state of Ohio and had served a couple of years as a law clerk for Judge Patricia Ann Blackmon at the Eight District Court of Appeals. His return to the Supreme Court marked an important new chapter in Matt’s legal career – he was coming back to where he had been an unpaid extern, but this time in a different capacity.
In the more than twenty years that my colleagues and I worked for Justice Pfeifer, we saw dozens of externs come and go, but Matt was the only one who made a lasting impression on us all. The externs as a group were an exceptionally bright and talented collection of young people. They were eager and hardworking, and almost all of them took the position seriously.
So what set Matt apart? He had an unmistakable quality about him, something intangible that’s difficult to describe. Even meeting him for the first time, we all felt that we were reacquainting with an old friend. You got the immediate impression that here was someone genuine, a bright, talented person who didn’t need to let everyone know how smart he was. Some people call that being comfortable in your own skin. Whatever “it” is, Matt had it.
Several years after he had served as our extern, we learned that there was an opening for a law clerk in Justice Maureen O’Connor’s office. We instantly thought of Matt. We told him about the opening, and he submitted his resume. We weren’t surprised when Justice O’Connor decided to hire him over all the other candidates for the job.
Being a law clerk for a Supreme Court justice isn’t just a position that looks good on a resume; it’s an opportunity for an attorney to stretch his or her legal muscles. Clerks have to become well versed in a wide array of legal issues.
In an old episode of Seinfeld, Jerry’s off-kilter neighbor, Kramer, develops a cough and needs to seek medical attention. Rather than seeing a doctor, Kramer decides he wants to see a veterinarian. He reasons that doctors only work on people, but vets are far more diverse. “I’ll take a vet over an MD any day,” he says. “They’ve got to be able to cure a lizard, a chicken, a pig, a frog all on the same day.”
Law clerks are sort of the veterinarians of the legal profession. Depending on the cases that are assigned to them they have to be ready to work on an assault case, an insurance dispute, a child custody matter, or a search and seizure that may have violated the Fourth Amendment – “all on the same day.”
After doing all the necessary research, law clerks then must write a legal opinion that withstands the scrutiny of their justice, the six other justices, and the editors in the reporter’s office. And those opinions that they write for their justices will be preserved in Ohio’s law books forever. Legally speaking, it’s the big leagues.
Matt worked for Justice O’Connor for two years before heading into private practice. But his time at the Court left him well connected in Ohio’s legal community.
Earlier this year, Matt had the chance to return to the Ohio Supreme Court – as an attorney representing a client named Andrew Jackson. And he had the rare honor of arguing his case before a court presided over by his old boss – Maureen O’Connor. In 2010, Justice O’Connor was elected as Ohio’s Chief Justice. In so doing, she became the first female chief justice in Ohio’s history. She was reelected in 2016, running unopposed for a second term.
I don’t know how many people have pulled off what Matt has done – working as an extern, a law clerk and then arguing before the Court as a private attorney. I would think it has to put him in a select group – the few who have completed the “Supreme Court Triple Crown.”
Now, if he ever wants to run for the Supreme Court, he can go for the Grand Slam.