William Cook has spent more than four decades as an attorney, 37 of them in Alaska. He's handled thousands of cases and been in countless courtrooms. But late last year, he stood before a court he had only ever visited as a tourist, the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cook, 69, had flown more than eight hours and 3,300 miles from his home near Anchorage to take the oath to join the Supreme Court bar, the group of lawyers allowed to practice before the nation's highest court. But Cook says he never expects to use his membership, never thinks he'll represent anyone in the court.
"I'm just sort of a typical personal injury litigator. A little product liability and a lot of car wrecks. People that are injured and killed. It's important to the people I represent, but it's pretty routine across the United States," said Cook, who was sworn in with his son, also a lawyer in Alaska.
Still, Cook said the minutes-long swearing-in ceremony was something he'd wanted to do for years.
"It's a great honor," he said.
Like Cook, most of the lawyers who become members of the Supreme Court bar will never argue before the court. The justices hear only about 80 cases a year, and the majority of the lawyers arguing them are specialists who routinely appear before the court. Still, nearly 4,000 lawyers on average join the bar every year, and the fees they pay bring in more than $750,000 annually. That money pays for preparing and mailing the lawyers' admission certificates but also other expenses, including improvements to the court's common areas, education projects and museum-like displays for visitors.
Joining the group may sound exclusive, but it requires less paperwork than visiting a new doctor's office and costs less than an annual gym membership. All a lawyer needs to do is to be a member of his or her state's bar for three years, get the signatures of two other Supreme Court bar members and pay a one-time $200 fee. The admission form runs two pages.
"I told my parents, and they were maybe a little too impressed that I filled out some paperwork," said Michael Baratz, a Washington lawyer who became a member of the Supreme Court bar last year.
The Supreme Court estimates its bar has 230,000 members, a number that may be inflated because no one checks to ensure members are still alive and practicing. Some members join as part of groups coordinated by law schools and professional organizations. Others are sworn in as individuals. Still others apply and get their membership certificate by mail, without ever entering the court's marble building.
Lawyers who join say it's something to add to their resumes, though the Supreme Court itself acknowledged in one 1982 opinion that the fact alone is "relatively uninformative." And the membership certificate is an impressive wall decoration, with its sketch of the court building and a gold seal. Membership has another perk for lawyers who want to attend an oral argument at the court: They can join a shorter line for lawyers instead of standing in the public line, and once inside they get seats closer to the justices.
Washington lawyer Gigi Sohn said she joined the Supreme Court bar in 1993 because it seemed like fun. The membership fee has turned out to be the "best $200 I've ever spent," she said, "because I've gotten access to top cases." She has her certificate hanging above her desk at Public Knowledge, an Internet advocacy group she heads.
"It's just an indicator of being at the top of your profession. I know it's very superficial," she said, adding it still makes her feel proud to be part of an institution that's so important to American democracy.
Other lawyers said they don't expect to need their membership, but it's good to be prepared. Elizabeth Flanagan, a New Jersey lawyer, said she joined the bar in 2010 so she'd never have to tell clients "there's something I cannot do for them."
Other lawyers sheepishly used another word to describe the membership: "cool."
"It's sort of a trophy," said Rebecca Copeland, a Hawaii lawyer who became a member of the bar because she was helping to file a brief with the court.
James Reid Kristy, who mainly handles insurance and medical malpractice cases, joined the bar in 2010. Kristy, who traveled from California to Washington to be sworn in in person, said it was a thrill to stand up and have his name recited in front of the court's nine justices.
"I like to think that they look at us and say: 'Well, good for you. You'll likely never be here again, but good for you ... recognizing the importance of the court,'" he said.
Now, he has the court's certificate on his wall, one of about a dozen items he has displayed. Still, it stands out.
"The Supreme Court one looks really impressive," he said.
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