For a graduating law student, a clerkship with a federal appeals court judge is a glittering credential. With the right judge, it can be a steppingstone to the most sought-after credential of all, a clerkship at the Supreme Court itself. One of those reliable “feeder” judges is William H. Pryor Jr., chief judge of the 11th Circuit and on Donald Trump’s original shortlist for the Supreme Court.
Pryor has just selected his next crop of law clerks, including Crystal Clanton of the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, a development first reported by the legal website Above the Law.
Clanton, 26, is Pryor’s first clerk from Scalia, according to a list published by the school, but she is notable for another reason: racist comments she appears to have made years ago when working for the conservative youth group Turning Point USA.
“I hate black people. Like f--- them all … I hate blacks. End of story,” Clanton, then the group’s national field director, wrote in a text message to a fellow Turning Point employee unearthed by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer in 2017. (Her version was unexpurgated.)
In an email to Mayer then, Clanton wrote, “I have no recollection of these messages and they do not reflect what I believe or who I am and the same was true when I was a teenager.” It’s not clear how old Clanton was when she wrote the text.
Clanton left Turning Point right after Mayer’s story appeared, and ended up working for conservative activist Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom she had met while at Turning Point.
Pryor has sent on law clerks to every conservative justice except Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and most of those have worked for Thomas, who over the years has selected an astonishing 13 Pryor clerks.
And this is the truly worrisome part of the Clanton story: that a sitting federal judge is credentialing someone with this kind of hateful statement in her background, and perhaps grooming her for a post that’s even more important, a Supreme Court clerkship.
It gives me no pleasure to focus on Clanton, who did not respond to requests for comment. I have daughters her age, one of whom happens to be in law school. We all do stupid things when we are young, and some of us do terrible things. We should allow some space for repentance and forgiveness.
But there is no evidence of repentance here, and her reported comments are astonishing in their savagery. This is not a case of a racial slur directed in anger at a single individual — not that such conduct would be in any way acceptable. This is even worse: animus expressed toward an entire race.
Nor was this an isolated outburst. The year after the New Yorker story, the website Mediaite, reporting on Clanton’s hiring by Ginni Thomas, described a Snapchat message featuring “a photo of a man who appears to be Arab and a caption written by Clanton that reads, ‘Just thinking about ways to do another 9/11.’”
Someone who writes such things would not be hired in my private-sector workplace or most others, unless I miss my guess. Moreover, judicial clerkships are federal positions, paid for by taxpayer dollars, where dispensing equal justice under the law is job one.
And federal judges are called on to interpret and enforce the law impartially. Ask yourself: How do Black litigants — or Black lawyers — with cases before Pryor have confidence of a fair ruling in their cases with a clerk with Clanton’s record waiting in chambers? How do litigants in employment discrimination or voting rights cases have confidence that they will be treated equally in his court?
Indeed, there is a reasonable question about whether someone who has expressed these views and not apologized should be admitted to law school, let alone the bar; after all, state bars generally require evidence of good moral character.
In Virginia, where Clanton attends law school, that includes any “conduct that reflects adversely upon the character or fitness of an applicant,” although in making that assessment bar officials take into account the applicant’s age at the time of the conduct and “evidence of rehabilitation.”
Did Pryor know of Clanton’s texts before he hired her? Do her comments concern him? If not, why not? I put those questions to Pryor by email. I haven’t heard back.