To apply, one simply fills out an application as for any other position. But if your application goes on in the process, well, that brings a very rare experience indeed.
Jim Ligtenberg ’06, a native of South Dakota, graduated from Calvin as a double major in economics and political science. He took off a year to work as a staff intern for U.S. Sen. John Thune, a Republican from South Dakota, and then tackled law school at Yale University, where he served as editor of the Yale Law Journal.
“Working with the Supreme Court structure is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is humbling, intellectually energizing and challenging.”Jim Ligtenberg '06
After earning his law degree, Ligtenberg worked for a Washington, D.C., law firm and also clerked in the Fourth District Court of Appeals in Charlottesville, Virginia.
After all of this preparation he decided to apply for a clerkship for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito Jr.
“I was honored and humbled to have been chosen for a personal interview with Justice Alito,” said Ligtenberg. “That in itself was an incredible experience, one-on-one with an accomplished and brilliant legal mind.”
Ligtenberg was chosen to be one of four clerks for Justice Alito during the 2015–16 court year.
“Working with the Supreme Court structure is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “It is humbling, intellectually energizing and challenging. The best part was getting to know Justice Alito personally.”
Ligtenberg said there were three regular elements to his work in the court. One was reviewing the petitions that request the court to hear a case. In a given year, about 7,000 to 8,000 petitions make their way to the Supreme Court, he said. “The justices debate the merits of which ones they should hear and that results in accepting around 80 of them.”
In addition, Supreme Court clerks read briefs and help prepare the justice for oral arguments. Finally, clerks help the justice draft case opinions.
Throughout the experience, Ligtenberg enjoyed getting to know the clerks of other justices, too, and there was a lively camaraderie present among the young attorneys. In fact, Ligtenberg said the collegial nature inside the Supreme Court is probably the least understood truth about the institution.
“With all of the attention the Supreme Court and its justices get, the public perception is quite inaccurate,” he said. “Inside the court it is an incredibly civil place. Yes, the justices robustly disagree at times, but they deeply respect one another and the traditions and the institution of the court. I came away with the utmost respect for all of the justices.”
Ligtenberg completed his clerkship in late July 2016, and since then was able to take a long-delayed honeymoon with his wife of almost a year, Lita Tandon, and looked for a new law position in New York City, where the couple moved. He began work this January at Jones Day, an NYC firm.
He’s grateful for his Calvin education, which he said allowed him to develop the analytic, problem-solving, writing and presentation skills that have served him well since graduation.
A semester of study in Washington, D.C., heightened his interest in government and politics, and he recalls professors Bill Stevenson (political science) and Roland Hoksbergen (economics) as important influences.
Ligtenberg is aware there is always more to learn about the law and promoting public justice.
“Another important experience working in the Supreme Court was observing so many great lawyers give their oral arguments before the justices,” he said. “I learned much for my future practice. And taking note of what questions the justices asked was fascinating.”
He is deeply grateful for the Supreme Court experience—and for all of the ways at Calvin and beyond that he’s been trained for future work and service of substance.