Southwestern Law School Los Angeles, CA

The California Supreme Court: An Extern's Perspective

Courtney Martin, Judicial Extern for Justice Ming W. Chin, California Supreme Court

Courtney Martin with Justice Chin

For two months this summer, I considered myself an "insider." Externing for Justice Ming W. Chin at the California Supreme Court has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Due to confidentiality rules, I cannot tell you what cases I worked on, which issues I researched, or how the court as a whole is likely to vote in upcoming decisions. What I can tell you, though, is that I highly recommend a judicial externship for anyone who wants to learn both about how the law develops and how the judicial decision-making process actually works.

I first saw Justice Chin when he spoke at Southwestern's Commencement Ceremony in May of 2010. I had recently finished my first year of law school and, at the time, had no intention of applying for an externship during my law school career. It was not until I heard Justice Chin speak about the effect that seminal court decisions have on our society and the importance of maintaining an impartial judiciary that I desired to learn about our courts and justices from personal experience. So, during the beginning of my second year, I sent in my application to Justice Chin's chambers, and was lucky enough to be chosen as one of his externs during the summer before my third year of law school. Anyone seeking a judicial externship should consider applying nearly a year in advance!

Courtney Martin and the other externs with Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye
Courtney Martin and the other externs with Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye

To prepare for my first day, I read through The Supreme Court of California booklet which contains information about the court and how it operates, familiarized myself with the California Style Manual, which is the citation format the court uses, and read suggestions from Southwestern students who had previously externed at the court. I was excited, and the experience surpassed my expectations! During my short time at the court, I have had the opportunity to meet with four of the Justices, including Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye; learn from attorneys in the Civil, Criminal, and Central Staffs about their responsibilities; watch oral argument; tour the Supreme Court's courtroom and library; and form friendships with my fellow externs.

I have done a little bit of work, too. I received an assignment from day one, and my supervisor always made sure I had projects to work on, but was not too overwhelmed. The staff attorneys I worked with were some of the nicest people I have ever met. What I appreciated most was the time they devoted to teaching and mentoring. They edited memoranda I drafted, provided constructive feedback, asked for my opinion on issues I researched, happily answered all of my questions, and even threw a welcoming party during my first week. Justice Chin immediately made me feel like an important part of his staff, and he meant it when he said he maintains an open-door policy. I learned so much about the court's policies and procedures, including why the court grants some petitions for review but not others, and why it allows some issues to "percolate" in the lower courts. I also appreciated the many roles and responsibilities of our state's highest court, for example, in speaking on behalf of all of California's courts and educating California's citizens about the effects of the recent budget cuts to the judicial branch. I value, more than ever before, the hard-work of all those individuals that contribute to the efficient operation of our judicial system.

As I begin my last year of law school, I have many things to look forward to. Although taking the Bar Examination next summer may not be on the top of my list, I know once I tackle it, the possibilities for my future are endless. After hearing that many of the Supreme Court Justices never thought they would be where they are today, I am more comfortable now not knowing exactly where I want to be in ten years. As long as I continue to work hard, remember my values, and appreciate those people and experiences that come my way, I cannot go wrong. I thank Southwestern Law School and its community, including Deans Garth, Parrish and Greener, Professors de Gyarfas and Cammack, and David McFadden for their unwavering support, advice and encouragement. I recommend that all Southwestern students take advantage of our externship program and experience first-hand the inner-workings of a court, government or nonprofit organization. I am truly grateful for my experiences this summer, and who knows, maybe in the future I will become an "insider" once again.