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Historical Bar: Four Questions About the First Woman to Clerk at the United States Supreme Court

by Judge Larry L. Jordan

As seen in The Alaska Bar Rag: Volume 36, No. 2: April – June 2012

The four questions

I recently  learned  who the  first woman law clerk was at the United States Supreme Court. I was very surprised and elated about my discovery, but I also felt a sense of ignorance. To see if others were more knowledgable, I started asking the lawyers at my me­diations the following four questions:

1.Who was the first woman to clerk at the United States Supreme Court?

2. What year did she clerk?

3. Which justice did she clerk for?

4. From which law school did she graduate?

I have  asked  approximately 100 lawyers these four questions, and as of this writing,  only one lawyer  has been able to answer  any of my ques­ tions. (Douglas Strandberg of Friday Harbor  guessed the law school that she attended.) I am confident that some lawyers in  Washington State know the  answers, but  the lawyers I questioned confirmed that they all shared my ignorance.

The answers

1. Helen Lucile Lomen.  (She dropped the Helen and was known publicly as Lucile, Miss Lomen at the Supreme Court, Lucy to manyfriends, and Lu to her family.)

2. The year was 1944-1945.

3. The  justice  was  William O. Douglas.

4. The law school was the University of Washington

Lomen’s background

Lucile Lomen was born in Nome, Alaska,  on August  21, 1920. Both of her grandparents moved to Nome during the gold rush at the end of the 19th century. Her paternal grandfa­ther was a lawyer who was appointed to the Alaska Territorial Court by Calvin Coolidge in 1925 and again by Herbert Hoover in 1930. Her father was a prominent businessman with the  Lomen  Commercial  Company and a member of the Alaska Territorial Senate. Her family temporarily moved to Seattle in 1934, but because of a fire that destroyed much of Nome, the family continued to reside in Se­ attle. Lomen graduated from Queen Anne High School in 1937.  She later attended Whitman College in Walla Walla  and  graduated with  honors in 1941. In 1947, Lomen wrote that Whitman “prides itself on its friendliness and…is largely  devoted to the grooming of students who will later enter  the  professional  schools.” She also wrote that”[ n]ow that I look back on my college career the outstanding part  of my life at Whitman consists of living, working, and playing with people.”

Lomen applied and was accepted to the University of Washington Law School, which had been admitting women  from  the  time  it began  in 1899.  In 1941, some East  Coast law schools such as Harvard did not admit women. There were three women in her graduation class.  She was Law Review editor, vice-president of the Law Review board, published several articles (including an article on constitutional law for which she had received a prize), and graduated first in her class. Arin Lomen Sandstrom, one of Lucile’s three younger sisters, says that “I was always in awe of my first mentor. She taught mehow to study and the fun of learning. She had an intense  focus on schoolwork, and later on law.”

Of course, after the United States entered World War II, many of the male st udents did not return to law school, which affected the recruitment oflaw clerks. In those days the asso­ ciate  justices each had only one law clerk, making the choice particularly important. Prior to that  time in his­ tory, there  had  been no women law clerksin the Supreme Court. In 1944, Justice Douglas wrote  to Judson F. Falknor,   dean  of the  University of Washington Law  School,  who  had supplied him  with  four of his  prior law clerks.Justice Douglas indicated that he would hire a woman if she “is absolutely first  rate.” Dean  Falknor recommended  Lomen.  Mter  check­ ing with faculty  at his alma  mater, Whitman College, and receiving very favorable recommendations, Douglas hired Lomen. Lomen described  Jus­ tice Douglas as very businesslike at the court and someone who could do legal research faster than anyone she had ever known. In 1964 Lomen wrote that in  addition  to the  professional growth  that  occurred  from associat­ ing  with  Justice Douglas,  “a  more concrete benefit isthe number of doors that have been open to me as a woman in the profession because of that year.”  Justice Douglas described Lomen as having “a fine mind” and “a great capacity for work.”  Lomen often worked 16 hours a day and would sleep on a couch in her office.

While   at the   Supreme Court, Lomen socialized with the secretaries, and although the other clerks accepted her, she felt there were dif­ ferences  based on gender,  age, legal education, and geography. Most of the other clerks were from the east coast and were educated at such prestigious law schools as Harvard, Yale and Columbia as well as the University of Chicago. Lomen once stated that she and a law clerk from Wisconsin were considered westerners and the two of them “thought differently than the way the other eight thought.”  She said, “I never knew if my problem was because I was a woman or because I was younger, or what.”

Ater clerking  for a year, Lomen returned to  Washington state and worked as an assistant state attorney general  for  three  years. Thereafter she worked at General Electric from 1948-1983, retiring at corporate headquarters as  compensation and benefits counsel. Her sister Ann said that  “the  entire Lomen family was extremely delighted when, after retirement she chose in 1989 to return to Seattle.”  Lomen died on June 21, 1996 at the age of 75.

Lomen’s legacy

Lucile Lomen was a true  pioneer in  many ways.   Certainly life  in Nome in the 1920s must have been difficult. From  the  description of her work ethic, those early frontier years  must  have helped form her values and penchant for hard  work. She  clearly  demonstrated her  legal abilities while  a law student at  the University of Washington.  She wrote several scholarly articles, held many leadership positions, and graduated first in her class. The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsberg in a speech given at Wellesley  College on November  13, 1998, said that Lomen’s ”Washington Law Review Note on the Privileges and Immunities under the Fourteenth Amendment, published  in 1943, has had  remarkable staying power. Lo­men’s student note appears this very semester on Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe’s Constitutional Law seminar reading list.”  To say that Lomen was ahead of her time is more than true, as it was not until 1966 that the next woman law clerk was hired in the Supreme Court when Justice Hugo Black hired Margaret Corcoran.

Like many of us, Lomen was lucky to live in  a place  that  afforded  her many  opportunities, including the opportunity as  a  woman  to  attend law school. As Lomen wrote in 1946, “[t]oo many women in the profession have  been  discriminated against to make  a  worth-while  enterprise for one who is not interested in good hard work. “The University of Washington Law School and its graduates should celebrate the fact that Kellye Teste is its first woman dean,  and that 1944 graduate Lucile Lomen,was  the first woman clerk in the United States Supreme Court.

Lomen’s oversvations about the differences between her and the other clerks are very insightful.  Gender diversity and equality has a positive effect taht is not easy to define but clearly exists in most institutions, including the judiciary.  As Lomen observed,  geographic  diversity can also be important. The current U.S. Supreme Court is made up of graduates  from  East   Coast  law  schools who often hire clerks from the same schools. If Lomen were asked  today whether a more diverse geographical perspective is desirable in addition to increased gender equality, I am sure her answer would be an unequivocal “Yes.”

Judge Larry Jordan was appoint­ed to the King County Superior Court in 1991 and  served until  July 2001. Before taking the  bench,  he served from 1975-1991 as a commissioner of Division I of the Washington State Court of Appeals. He was law clerk to the Honorable Jerome Farris and the Honorable Keith M. Callow, and also served as an assistant public defender for the state of Alaska.

Sources: Conversation with  and  review of selected papers  and  letters of Ann Lomen Sandstrom; “Lucile Lomen:The First Woman to Clerk at the Supreme   Court,”  David  J. Danelski, Journal of Supreme  Court  History,  (1999) Vol. 23, No.1.

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