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Supreme Recruits: Ron Tenpas Recounts His Time Clerking for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist

“He was a kind man without airs. He treated everyone well, no matter who they were or what job they had.”

This is Part 4 in a series spotlighting V&E’s former Supreme Court clerks. To read the introduction to the series, click here.

You might say V&E partner Ron Tenpas and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist connected from Day 1 over things other than the law.

By the time Tenpas arrived for his job interview with Rehnquist back in 1991, he had many things going for him. A Rhodes Scholar and editor-in-chief of the Virginia Law Review, he had clerked for Judge Louis H. Pollack of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

But it was common heritage that seemed to get Tenpas the job. Both grew up in the Great Lakes region in modest households, Rehnquist in Milwaukee and Tenpas in Erie, Pa.

“I think he had a sympathy for folks who didn’t necessarily come from families of wealth, or from law families,” Tenpas said. Plus both had an interest in political history, although the Chief’s knowledge “humbled mine,” admits Tenpas. “I was lucky the interview was only 30 minutes – another five and I was out of things to say.”

When Rehnquist asked Tenpas whether he would be willing to play a weekly tennis game with him and his co-clerks, Tenpas gave the right answer: Yes.

Tenpas would go on to serve as Rehnquist’s clerk from 1991 to 1992, and established a friendship that lasted until Rehnquist’s passing in 2005. After Tenpas left the Supreme Court, he stayed in touch with Rehnquist over rounds of tennis and charades. When the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court Bar held a special session in the Chief Justice’s memory, Tenpas served as “chairman of the meeting.”

Spending a year in Rehnquist’s chambers was pivotal in multiple ways. “You become a better lawyer and a more careful thinker when you’re working for a very, very smart judge,” Tenpas said. “It hones your thinking skills and your ability to do sophisticated legal analysis.”

Tenpas compares the work clerks do in reviewing cert petitions to “a one-year course in federal law.” The broad exposure to legal issues he received remains helpful nearly three decades later in his environmental litigation practice.

“It’s hugely valuable. I might encounter a problem in environmental law and say, ‘Hey, I think there might be a way to analogize this to the regulation of banks,’” he said. “My ability to have even that basic instinct would not exist but for the year of working at the Supreme Court.”

Learning to adjust to Rehnquist’s rhythms also provided valuable training. Rather than request written memos on cases, the Chief Justice would knock on his clerk’s door and say “All right, let’s go for a walk,” Tenpas recalled. They would then proceed to walk around the perimeter of the Supreme Court, something that would be unheard of today in an era of heightened security.

“You would pretty much talk the case through and if there was something that he wanted to know more about, he would ask you for a short memo. In that sense he was great to work for because you weren’t writing these long memos,” Tenpas said. “On the other hand, you really had to be ready with your analysis in your head. That’s a lot like oral advocacy you do as a lawyer.”

Tenpas carried these experiences with him as he worked his way up the ranks of the Justice Department to ultimately serve as Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division, before entering private practice.

But he’s equally grateful for the life lessons he learned in Rehnquist’s chambers.

“He was a kind man without airs,” Tenpas said. “He treated everyone well, no matter who they were or what job they had.”