Lessons from Judge Hatter’s Chambers

by ursavoice

Selwyn Chu

J.D. Candidate 2012, UCI Law


    The summer of my 1L year, I externed for the Honorable Terry J. Hatter, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. As part of the classroom component I had to write five reflection papers on the experience. The last of these, since edited, appears below.


    The word like may be one of the most versatile four-letter words in the English language able to be uttered in polite company. It’s a verb (“I like basketball”); an adjective (“on this and like occasions”); a preposition (“live like royalty”); an adverb (“more like weeks than days”); a conjunction (“like we expected”); a noun (“my likes and dislikes”); and perhaps most versatilely, a hedge and a colloquial substitute for said and thought (“This is, like, unbelievable.” “And I’m like, ‘Yeah’.”). With this last category of usage the possibilities are endless. You can splice a like anywhere, into any sentence or phrase, without adding or subtracting an iota of meaning. Think of it as the Swiss Army knife of words, only instead of knives and tools you have popsicle sticks smeared with poop. Richard Smith is the biggest anti-like activist this side of the Central District. In lieu of a swear jar he keeps a like jar, and would have you, me, and every other unwitting butcher of the English language deposit a quarter in it for each wayward like that issues from our mouths.

    Judge Hatter’s is not your typical judicial externship. That much is obvious the moment you set foot in the clerks’ office. A stuffed Elmo hangs from the ceiling—literally hangs, as in, by a noose around its neck, a macabre sight if it were not so ridiculous. Below, a black miniature wastebasket sits aside two deluxe-size desks occupying most of the room. A sticker atop its swing lid reads: “Body parts. Do not dispose.” In the corner, on a fully stocked bookshelf, are a set of photographs depicting several tree-hugging former externs—literally hugging trees. Apparently it was their way of apology for wasting an inordinate amount of paper on unnecessary print jobs.

The law clerks who meted out this peculiar punishment are not your usual ingénues. For them, it’s been many moons since law school. There is Richard, who with his white hair and beard and sizeable girth would make a great Santa if he were not so mean (looking). And Ken, the junior clerk whose glorious mustache and throwback mullet might make lesser-coiffed men cry. On casual days when the judge is out of chambers, the two men rock Hawaiian shirts à la Magnum P.I.

    Judge Hatter himself is a warm, good-humored man with an endless cache of stories from a life fully lived. Appointed to the bench by Jimmy Carter, it is possible he has forgotten more law than you or I will ever learn. That he puts in time with a revolving door of externs is a credit to him, for as valuable as that time is it is never sparing. With me it was no different.

Richard and Ken, too, put in their time. To them I was a novelty. Never before had they hosted an extern from a completely
unaccredited law school (Ken’s emphasis, not mine). They were delighted to discover I could read and write.

    For a pair of unabashed smartasses, Richard and Ken are remarkably patient mentors. A fellow extern asked more questions than anyone I had ever met, and Richard and Ken took them all without succumbing to the same frequent urge I felt to stab myself repeatedly in the temporal lobe with an ice pick. Some of it had to do with the fact that the two of them had no real need of us. They could do our work themselves in less time than it took them to support us in doing it for them. Thanks to Judge Hatter’s senior status, theirs was not the crushing caseload of a nonsenior judge’s chambers. They could afford to go over our bench memos with us line by line, ask for as many drafts as it took to get one worthy of the judge’s eyes. Along the way came helpful lessons. Like the science of weighing authority—there’s the Ninth Circuit, and then there’s everyone else. Or the need to make our work “idiot-proof” so lawyers and judges reading it will understand it. Even the importance of expelling improper likes from our vernacular so we don’t, like, sound stupid when we talk.

    Underlying these lessons was the mother lesson from which all other lessons flowed—what I came to regard as Richard’s first rule of chambers: most lawyers are incompetent. After twenty-plus years at that job, he knew better than I did. But maybe that view of the profession is why he and Ken do what they do—for me and for the hundreds of other externs that have passed through Judge Hatter’s chambers over the years: to make it so that we’re not most lawyers. For that, we should all be grateful. I know I am.