UM alum overcame obstacles, heart attack, became Supreme Court clerk

John Woodrow Cox//September 29, 2017

UM alum overcame obstacles, heart attack, became Supreme Court clerk

By The Washington Post News Service & Syndicate

//John Woodrow Cox

//September 29, 2017

Tiffany Wright, seen in front of the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor after overcoming a childhood of great adversity. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain.
Tiffany Wright, seen in front of the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor after overcoming a childhood of great adversity. (Washington Post photo by Matt McClain.)

WASHINGTON – On the way to the most important job interview of her life, Tiffany Wright took a detour, turning up Trinidad Avenue in Northeast Washington and slowing as a brown brick rowhouse came into view.

She glanced out of her passenger-side window and thought back to the night that shaped her life. It was there – beyond the chain-link fence, up the gray steps – that her father had answered the front door and been shot to death.

Wright was 7.

Now, 26 years later, on April 8, 2015, she had awakened at 4:30 a.m. to a phone alarm labeled in bright white letters: “SCOTUS DAY!” She had put on makeup and fixed her hair, filled a thermos with cold-brew coffee and prepped her navy blue suit. Wright had prayed, too, but for what God wanted instead of what she wanted, because the latter still felt beyond possibility.

It had been three months since she had applied to serve as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and two weeks since Wright had gotten the call: “The justice would like to have you come in and interview.”

“Seriously?” Wright said, succumbing to tears she almost never shed.

More than 30,000 law school students graduate annually, and the Supreme Court’s nine members offer just 36 clerkships each year. Getting chosen would be, as Wright’s husband described it, like getting drafted into the NBA. Those selected enter one of the most elite fraternities in the legal world, routinely receiving signing bonuses in excess of $300,000 from their first post-clerkship law firms.

Wright had so many reasons to doubt she belonged. She was an African American woman, who had grown up in Southeast Washington and never traveled outside the country, trying to join a group that, historically, had been dominated by affluent, worldly white men. She was 33 and had an 8-year-old son. She had attended Georgetown Law at night, while working full time as a paralegal, because Wright and her husband couldn’t afford for her not to. She’d taken out loans to pay for it, too, leaving the family with a quarter of a million dollars in debt.

In a sense, though, Wright also believed she’d spent her entire life preparing for that day. So much terror and upheaval, misery and loss – maybe it all had led to this.

She had barely slept in those two weeks after the call, reading 70 court opinions, reviewing at least 20 of Sotomayor’s written decisions and scouring YouTube for interviews that the court’s first Latina had given. Wright outlined cases that were especially meaningful to her – about the Sixth Amendment, equal protection, voting rights – and filled 41 pages of notes.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you look like or what challenges life throws your way,” she watched President Barack Obama say in a video from the day he announced Sotomayor’s nomination.

Now, three hours before the interview, Wright was on Trinidad, in front of the rowhouse, thinking of her father. She was less than two miles from the steps that lead to the marble columns and bronze doors of the highest court in the nation.

“I hope I made you proud,” she silently told him.

“He’s gone to heaven,” Wright’s mother had said to her in 1989, and when the little girl on the bed understood that meant her dad was dead, she curled into a ball and sobbed.

Wright had come to the nation’s capital as a toddler, after her parents’ divorce, and lived with family in an aging home across the street from a housing project in Southeast. Amid the exploding crack epidemic, two of her uncles stayed there, too, before one, who sold drugs, went to prison for sexual assault and the other served time for armed robbery. Even her mother had abused drugs at one point.

After her dad’s death, Wright lived for a few months with an aunt who was hooked on crack. The girl saw used needles and blackened spoons in the house and,outside it, men trying to exchange money for sex. Neighborhood kids teased her because, they said, her aunt was a prostitute. Once, the woman brought Wright with her to a drug house when she needed a fix. Another time, Wright awoke on a sofa bed to find that someone had stolen her clothing.

“Everything had been sold except my underwear,” said Wright, who realized that even her most important possession in the world, a videotape of “The Little Mermaid,” was taken.

Another aunt, a heroin addict who would die of AIDS years later, insisted one day that Wright look at the sores and track marks on her arms. “You don’t have to do this,” she told the girl.

Gone was the unshakable feeling of security that her father, Thomas W. Moore, a stout Army veteran who worked as a corrections officer, had always given her, even when they’d been apart.

In her most vivid memory of him, she was wearing a baby-blue shirt that matched the bows in her braided hair, and before her stood a white pony she was too scared to ride. Moore snatched his daughter up and plopped her atop the saddle. Suddenly unafraid, she grinned for a photo until her cheeks could stretch no farther.

When she saw her dad in an open casket at the funeral, Wright hoped he was just asleep until she touched him and felt the chill across his skin. She’d never faced dread like she did on that winter day: If I stay here, I’m going to die.

She learned that the pension and life insurance money he’d left her was being overseen by a person called an attorney. Wright expected Leonard McCants to be white, but when the second-grader met him in a fancy Silver Spring, Maryland, law office, he was black, like her, and in a crisp suit and tie.

“What do I have to do to be like you?” she asked.

Read a lot, McCants told her, and become a good writer.

The little girl found a library and asked for all of the “hard books,” and she came back with “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Great Gatsby,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and dozens of others that would consume her childhood. Because her father had been shot at night – in a crime detectives never solved – she often didn’t feel safe until the sun came up. Instead of sleeping, she read.

Before ninth grade, Wright heard about Washington’s School Without Walls, a public magnet that offered one of the best educations in the region. When her mother and new stepfather neglected to write an essay required for the application, Wright did it herself and put their names on it.

She got in.

That led her in 1999 to the University of Maryland, where she met a fellow freshman named Michael who had wide shoulders and an affinity for smart women. During one of their first conversations, he recalled years later, Wright told him she wanted to become an attorney, run her own law firm and make $90,000 a year.

By graduation, none of that looked attainable. She had struggled through her first two years, in large part because she arrived at college with no idea how to use a computer or the Internet. As a sophomore, she’d failed a statistics class, but even after improving her grades, Wright couldn’t find work in the months before she got her degree.

Desperate, Wright ordered a Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing computer program, convinced she would become a secretary who needed to produce 80 words a minute. In her first job, she worked at a law firm, stuffing envelopes and organizing files. In her second, she worked at the U.S. Parole Commission, making recommendations about what to do with convicts who violated the terms of their release.

Then came the day after Thanksgiving in 2006, when, seven months pregnant, Wright began to suffer severe back pain. As she lay in a hospital bed talking on the phone with her mom, the right side of her body went numb. She dropped the phone. A CT scan showed that four blood clots had traveled from her leg to her lung, triggering a heart attack.

“We don’t know how you’re still alive,” a doctor told her. A month later, she underwent a C-section, only to learn that her son, Noel, was ill. His pancreas had wrapped around his intestines, leaving him hospitalized for weeks.

Much like her father’s death, the anguish surrounding her son’s birth forced Wright to rethink her future. She wouldn’t risk having another child, but maybe she could do something more with her career.

She got a job as a paralegal at the U.S. attorney’s office in Baltimore, and immediately, it renewed her passion for becoming a lawyer. Wright helped on major drug and gang cases, showing such a knack for the work that prosecutors encouraged her to reconsider pursuing a law degree.

Wright had never entirely healed from the trauma of her earliest days, even after her mother remarried a good man and even after years of therapy. The fear that overwhelmed her youth still lingered. As a little girl, Wright so hated where her family lived that she collected real estate books and gave them to her mom, with homes in nicer neighborhoods circled in pen. As an adult, she still slept with a serrated knife under her mattress.

But she also carried with her a certainty that whatever she faced next wouldn’t compare to what she had already overcome.

“Early in my childhood, I realized that education would be the key to my escape,” she wrote in the personal statement that helped her earn admittance to Georgetown Law.

In the summer before she started, Wright posted a collage on Facebook that she called her “2009 Visions & Inspiration”: a smiling photo with her husband and son, who was 2; a Bible verse from Philippians that encouraged confidence; a picture of Jane Bolin, the first black woman in America to become a judge; an image inside the Supreme Court, with its 16 columns and nine leather chairs.

She continued to work as a paralegal, waking up at dawn, coming back to eat lunch with Noel, leaving the office about 5 p.m., attending classes, returning home to study past midnight.

A lifetime of insomnia suddenly became an advantage. It allowed Wright to be a wife, a mother, a paralegal and a law student all at once. And at Georgetown, she soared, earning all As her first semester.

“One of the most brilliant people I know,” said Edward Williams, a fellow graduate.

In her second year, she participated on the school’s moot court team and served as an editor on its prestigious Law Journal, the only African American – male or female – to do both at the same time those semesters. She graduated in the top 5 percent of her class.

A year later, she began a clerkship for David S. Tatel, a renowned judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit.

“She was magical,” Tatel recalled. “Just extraordinary.”

What impressed him most, before he knew Wright’s entire backstory, was her writing talent, nurtured by the thousands of books she’d read.

“The first piece of work I saw from Tiffany Wright,” Tatel said, “was as good as the best work I get from the best law clerks.”

Her life experience provided Wright, who stood just 5 feet tall, with a rare ability to argue with both ferocity and grace, said clerks who worked with her.

Tatel recognized it, too, once assigning her to review a police case that, at first, he thought had no merit. Wright returned with her analysis a few days later.

“Judge,” he recalled her saying, “I think I have a different view of this case than you do.”

“She was right,” he said.

By then, Wright had decided not to apply for the Supreme Court. She and her husband, who worked in I.T., would at times pay their rent with credit cards. Wright wanted to start work at a private firm.

Tatel urged her to apply. Then came the call from Sotomayor’s office.

Her palms were slick with sweat when she arrived at court. She could feel her pulse beating in her fingertips.

“The justice is here,” someone told Wright.

She stood and walked down a hallway, where a door in front of her opened. There was Sotomayor, smiling, her hand extended.

“Oh, Tiffany,” the justice said, “it’s so great to meet you.”

Eighteen months later, on October 4, 2016, in a room with red velvet drapes and a 44-foot-high coffered ceiling, Wright took a seat in a wooden chair as a Supreme Court clerk.

Bound by confidentiality, she could never speak of the work she’d do for Sotomayor during a year in which the justices would take up cases involving trademarks and free speech, racial gerrymandering and President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

But on her first day in the nation’s most important courtroom, this is what Wright could say: She was the only clerk who was a mother, the only one who was African American, the only one who had grown up in Southeast Washington.

And on that day, Wright knew how her father would feel.


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