Last Thursday, Judge Kevin Newsom, a 2017 appointee to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, joined UVa Law students in Caplin Pavilion to discuss aspects of his judicial philosophy and the steps he has taken on his career path.
Facilitated by UVa Law’s Professor Leslie Kendrick, the discussion began with a question about Judge Newsom’s childhood and what it was like to grow up in Birmingham, Alabama, the same city where he now sits on the bench. Speaking with an admirable candor, Judge Newsom admitted that his childhood contained many notable challenges, including the fact that both of his parents struggled with alcoholism during his youth. Additionally, his younger sister, who sadly passed away several years ago, suffered from severe mental and physical disabilities. In spite of these early obstacles, Judge Newsom characterized them as having a “unique influence” on his upbringing. He also lauded his childhood best friend’s father for serving as a positive role model during that time.
Judge Newsom went on to describe his education and the events that inspired his interest in the law. He attended Samford University for college, though he stated that it wasn’t until he took an American Constitutional History class during his junior year that he fell in love with the subject matter. Shortly after taking that course, Judge Newsom happened to tune into a late-night television program discussing the Incorporation Doctrine. It was then that he realized pursuing a career in the law was what he truly wanted to do. After completing his degree at Samford, and graduating summa cum laude, Judge Newsom went on to Harvard Law School where he served as an articles editor for the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude. Judge Newsom said he loved his time as a law student and particularly enjoyed taking classes taught by Professor Richard Fallon. Professor Fallon, he said, had a gift for making difficult concepts clear, even in notoriously difficult courses such as Federal Courts.
Following his graduation from Harvard Law, Judge Newsom clerked for Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Justice David H. Souter of the Supreme Court of the United States. Judge Newsom urged people thinking about clerking to do so and said that, while clerking may nudge open some doors later on in life, its true value lies in seeing how judges work and gaining firsthand experience in watching how law “gets done.” Moreover, Judge Newsom stated that clerking for two judges with notably different personalities and ideologies influenced the way he runs his chambers now. Specifically, he indicated that he views clerking as an experience that should be mutually beneficial for judges and clerks and said that he hopes to make things fun and enjoyable for the individuals who work for him. Judge Newsom also gave a special shout-out to Libby Stropko, a current 2L who will clerk for him in 2019 after her graduation. Following the event, Stropko said, “I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity to clerk for Judge Newsom. He is a brilliant jurist and writer, as well as a thoughtful mentor. I hope to learn a lot from him.”
Judge Newsom’s writing was also a focal point of the discussion and it is easy to see why: he is a four-time recipient of the National Association of Attorneys General “Best Brief Award,” which is given for exceptional briefing in the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Newsom said that as an attorney, and especially as a judge, it is important to constantly try to improve your legal writing. He adheres to the belief that, so long as your writing falls within the accepted bounds of grammar and takes account of the context and audience, attorneys should strive to “write the way [they] talk.” He noted that past generations of judges tended to be very formal but personally thinks that a writer’s goal should be to keep people reading and interested in the topic. As evidence that he practices what he preaches, Judge Newsom remarked that his first opinion opened with the sentence, “This is a tax case. Fear not, keep reading.” 1
Finally, throughout the discussion, Judge Newsom offered several lighthearted pieces of sound advice that seemed to resonate with the students in attendance. One comment he made was that, “So long as you’re ‘smart enough,’ which everyone in this room clearly is, all that matters is how much you really care.” Judge Newsom’s emphasis on the importance of personal effort is something that he admitted is particularly crucial to him when he hires new clerks. When asked to elaborate on this, Judge Newsom said that while having smart clerks is a factor in his hiring decisions, it is equally essential that they are team players who bring a positive energy to his chambers. Judge Newsom also said that although it is a good idea to have a general plan for one’s future, he encouraged students to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and to “leave [themselves] open to dumb luck.” He suggested that following that last piece of advice allowed him to have a fulfilling career. He began at Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C., before he went on to serve as the Solicitor General of Alabama, and then head the appellate practice group at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP in Birmingham. After hearing Judge Newsom speak, it is clear that it will be interesting to watch him continue to grow into his new role on the Eleventh Circuit.
1 Morrissey v. United States, 2017 WL 4229062 (11th Cir. Sept. 25, 2017)