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Under the U.S. Supreme Court: Bill Suter stepping down after 22 years

By MICHAEL KIRKLAND, UPI Senior Legal Affairs Correspondent
Under the U.S. Supreme Court: Bill Suter stepping down after 22 years
Supreme Court Clerk William Suter (upper right) joins, left to right, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito, applauding President George W. Bush as he delivers his 2007 State of the Union address in the U.S. House Chamber. (UPI Photo/Roger L. Wollenberg) | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- An earthquake of sorts struck Capitol Hill last week though many working in that seat of government were unaware of it. The U.S. Supreme Court announced that William Suter, retired Army major general, was stepping down after 22 years as clerk.

The court announcement of his looming retirement doesn't really do him justice. More than any other official, Suter brought the Supreme Court into the 21st century, bringing logic and organization to the process of taking a case to the court.

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"The court today announced that William K. Suter, longtime clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court, will retire after 22 years of service," the court's public information office said last Monday. "He will continue to serve through the end of the court's term before stepping down on Aug. 31."

In 1991, Suter was picked personally by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist to be the 19th clerk in the Supreme Court's history. He was appointed by President George H.W. Bush.

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Suter brought to the court an already distinguished career. Born in Ohio, raised in Kentucky, he rode a basketball scholarship to Trinity University in San Antonio -- even today, he's a towering 6-foot-5 and ramrod straight, looking like 55 instead of 75 -- then law school at Tulane.

In the Army, Suter rose to new responsibilities.

"Mr. Suter previously served in numerous positions of responsibility around the world, including appellate judge, deputy staff judge advocate of the U. S. Army Vietnam, staff judge advocate of the 101st Airborne Division, commandant of the JAG School and the assistant judge advocate general of the Army [making him the Army's top judge]," the court said. "He joined the Army in 1962, marking 50 years of public service this past year."

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The announcement included a message from Chief Justice John Roberts. "My colleagues and I are grateful to Bill Suter for his exceptional service to the court," Roberts said. "His retirement later this year will mark the completion of an exemplary career of public service in both military and civilian life."

One famous episode in his Army career was his brush with Elvis Presley.

Presley was at Fort Hood, Texas, in 1958 when Suter was doing Reserve Officers' Training Corps duty, the ABA Journal reported in 2011.

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"Elvis was training in the next barracks," Suter, who has a photo of him and Presley in his office, told the Journal. "He was a good soldier. We all palled around some. They let him live off the post, but he was driven in in the morning with Colonel Parker in the car." Tom Parker, not really a colonel, was Presley's manager. "But the soldiers of his company loved him [Presley]."

"As an officer of the court, Suter appears in morning suit when the court is in session and is seated to the left of the bench," the Journal article said. "He swears in attorneys to the Supreme Court bar, and he and his staff guide newbies facing their first Supreme Court argument through the system, preparing them early and attending to their needs on argument day."

"He is THE clerk at the court," retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told the Journal. Calling herself an enthusiastic fan, O'Connor said being clerk is "a hard job. He is the court's interface with the public and with lawyers."

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"He's an ambassador to the court," Supreme Court litigator Tom Goldstein, who founded SCOTUSBLOG.com, told the Journal. Suter "carries himself like a real general. Dealing with other clerk's offices are sometimes impossible, but his place runs like no other office in the world."

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Suter is famous for heading off TV personality Geraldo Rivera, who tried to convince court officials he had been promised a seat in the courtroom for 2000's Bush vs. Gore.

The clerk also wrote the first "Guide for Counsel in cases to be argued before the Supreme Court" walking new litigators through the procedures. He also offered this practical advice:

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"It has been said that preparing for oral argument at the Supreme Court is like packing your clothes for an ocean cruise," Suter said in the guide. "You should lay out all the clothes you think you will need, and then return half of them to the closet. When preparing for oral argument, eliminate half of what you initially planned to cover. Your allotted time passes quickly, especially when numerous questions come from the court. Be prepared to skip over much of your planned argument and stress your strongest points.

"Some counsel find it useful to have a section in their notes entitled 'cut to the chase.' They refer to that section in the event that most of their time has been consumed by answering questions posted by the justices."

Suter has been an extremely popular speaker at law schools across the United States.

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He was also a popular speaker with the Supreme Court press corps. For years Suter joined the press corps for lunch in the court cafeteria, often bringing a lawyer friend, who was inevitably told, "We never judge people by whom they show up with." Suter would laugh with the rest of the table -- the late columnist James J. "Jack" Kilpatrick, the late David Pike of the Los Angeles Daily Journal, Joan Biskupic of The Washington Post and later USA Today, Linda Greenhouse, the Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent from The New York Times, David Savage of the Los Angeles Times and various broadcast and wire reporters, including an "eager eater" from UPI.

Occasionally, the most gracious member of the court, Justice Stephen Breyer would stop by to say hello.

Discussions at the lunch table were open-ended and off the record, but Suter never gave out any information he shouldn't have -- a real talent when you're swimming in a reporters' shark tank.

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No word yet on who will succeed him as clerk. But as a towering presence and friend, he will never be replaced.

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