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Legally Speaking


Issue: October, 2007
Author: Suzannah B. Gambell

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A Day in the Life of a Wyoming District Court Law Clerk

8:00 a.m.
Arrive at work at the Couthouse in Cody, where I have been working for the Honorable Steven Cranfill since last September. Sit down at my desk and check e-mail. There are three new e-mails from fellow law clerks about next week’s conference. We will be meeting for four hours on September 11th in Jackson. I am convinced there must be something wrong with our e-mail system and wonder if I should alert the Supreme Court in Cheyenne of the problem. One of the messages was sent at 1:20 a.m. After reading the message, I realize there is nothing wrong with our system; my fellow law clerk had indeed been in the office in the early morning hours working on a summary judgment decision letter. I respond by telling her she wins the award as the most dedicated of our group, and thank her for her help with the upcoming conference. Another clerk writes that he has several questions for our one-hour panel discussion we are holding with Justice Voigt and two Supreme Court law clerks. We are hoping Justice Voigt and the clerks can tell us how we can make our decision letters more helpful to the Supreme Court when they are sent up on appeal.

8:31 a.m.
Read over three pro se proposed decrees of divorce before giving them to Judge Cranfill for review and signature. Draft two letters to the pro se litigants for the judge to review. One plaintiff has sent a proposed decree that both the plaintiff and the defendant have stipulated to. However, it appears the defendant has made changes to the proposed decree with a blue pen, while all of plaintiff’s writing is in black. It has not been notarized, and I am unsure if the changes were made with plaintiff present as there are no initials next to the changes. Another proposed decree involves children. After reviewing the financial affidavits and after spending thirty minutes attempting various mathematical calculations, I cannot figure out how the plaintiff came up with the amount she lists as her net monthly income. Finally, I decide that it isn’t just my lack of mathematical abilities that is creating the discrepancy. The third proposed decree is set aside after I realize it has not been twenty days since the complaint was filed. Ultimately, none of the three pro se proposed decrees can be signed by the judge.

9:25 a.m.
Draft a Nunc Pro Tunc to correct an order that was filed yesterday. Wonder if I could win a Darwin Award this year. The previous order was to hold a defendant in contempt for failure to pay child support, but I had unwittingly written “Plaintiff is hereby held in contempt.” After faxing the signed order yesterday, a phone call was received pointing out the error.

9:51 a.m.
Return to reading the case in which we will have a two-hour motion hearing in Jackson next week amidst the bar convention. I have been attempting to read the case file for the past three days in between a bench trial, motion hearings, and other matters. I am about two-thirds of the way through it, but it contains four case files, two expanding files, and additional documentation in a box. Nearly everything relates to the motion hearing, or at least gives necessary background information.

11:37 a.m.
Hunt down the judge in his office to have him sign the Nunc Pro Tunc I drafted earlier. Explain what happened briefly and obtain his signature. Ask him if he would like an update on what I have discovered regarding the Jackson motion hearing, which he states he does. After giving him my update, he asks what my thoughts are. Unlike law school, my position has resulted in me having to form an opinion on occasion, especially regarding what I think is a stronger legal argument. Still, hearing this question usually catches me by surprise, as I spent my previous three years regurgitating the information that had been given to me in class back onto my law school exams. The judge asks where I am with one of our summary judgment decision letters. I tell him it is my next order of business, but I haven’t been able to work on it yet since I have been trying to get through the Jackson case and another extensive hearing we had two days ago.

12:15 p.m.
Lunch. Drive the mile home so I can say hello to my cat. Dodge tourists as they jay-walk to the Irma Hotel.

1:07 p.m.
Return to work. Begin drafting what will eventually be a five-page bench memo for the judge for the Jackson hearing. I’ll have to come back in tomorrow to complete it so the judge has the memo before we both leave for Jackson on Monday. Toggle back and forth to Westlaw to research the various cases counsel have cited to and research whether I can find any additional relevant cases. I think I finally have Westlaw figured out. LexisNexis had gained my complete devotion in law school, and the transition took some time, and some tears. During my first year in law school, I had discovered Lexis would give students “points” for using their research system, and I could buy things if I had enough points. I would usually save my points to buy Christmas and birthday gifts.

2:15 p.m.
Join the judge and a pro se defendant in the courtroom. The plaintiff and her counsel are on the speaker phone requesting that the defendant be held in contempt for failure to return his children to his ex-wife after an eight week summer visitation. After having read through the file yesterday, I had assumed it would be an open and shut case holding the defendant in contempt. In amazement, I listen to the pro se litigant give a valid legal argument of his interpretation of the initial divorce decree and a modification to the decree, even appropriately mentioning the hearsay rule at one point. While the judge rules against him, finding the plaintiff’s interpretation to be correct, I remind myself again not to underestimate a party’s argument when you have not yet heard what it is. Even a pro se litigant can make a sound legal argument.

3:00 p.m.
Return a few more e-mails regarding next week’s law clerk conference. Talk to the circuit court clerk in Jackson to verify we can have access to a speaker phone as that is where the conference is to take place.

3:17 p.m.
Talk to Ranee, Judge Hartman’s court reporter, who informs me of the sentence the judge gave to a criminal defendant in a case with which we were both familiar. The defendant had entered a cold plea on felony drug charges.

3:25 p.m.
Spend the remainder of my day on legal research, mainly for the Jackson bench memo. Meanwhile, reference my bible, the Wyoming Court Rules Annotated, to read the rules counsel are citing to for the fourth and fifth times. Question why I can’t read faster and contemplate if I should send a $250 check to americanspeedreading.com.

5:17 p.m.
Say goodbye to the judge and leave for the day.

Suzannah B. Gambell received her undergraduate degree from Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire in 1999. After spending four years in the work force in Cheyenne, she returned to school and received her J.D. from the University of Wyoming College of Law in May 2006. In September 2006, she began her current two year position as a law clerk for the 5th Judicial District, Honorable Steven Cranfill.

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