Sometimes past and present collide in unusual ways. Former U.S. Labor Secretary W. Willard Wirtz, who served under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, died last weekend. Wirtz had a long and distinguished career as a cabinet officer, law professor and attorney. Not so well known was the important role he played in persuading Justice Wiley Rutledge to hire young John Paul Stevens as his second law clerk.
Wirtz and Rutledge had a strong connection. Shortly after graduating from Harvard Law School, Wirtz was hired as a member of the faculty of the University of Iowa School of Law by then Dean Rutledge. Almost a decade later, when then Justice Rutledge was thinking about a second law clerk, he sent a message through a colleague of Wirtz, who at that time was teaching at Northwestern University School of Law, that he would like to know more about the colleague’s suggestion that he hire Stevens, a Northwestern law student.
Wirtz quickly wrote a letter to Rutledge about Stevens “one of the two most outstanding students whom I have ever worked with.” The letter, drawn from Rutledge’s papers, is chronicled in the “Jackson List,” periodic emails by John Barrett of St. John’s University School of Law, who is writing the biography of Justice Robert Jackson.
Wirtz wrote in his 1947 letter:
“Stevens has the quickest, and at the same time balanced, mind I have ever seen at work in a classroom. I have worked with him, too, in connection with two or three law review projects. The man is just as solid as he is brilliant. Beyond all this he has a personality which makes it a pure delight to work with him. I suppose that he is undoubtedly the most admired, and at the same time, the best liked man in school.”
Wirtz said he could add “a number of details but they would all be of so much the same character that you would begin to apply a general discount rate.”
Rutledge, of course, hired Stevens who chose to serve a one-year clerkship instead of the two years offered by Rutledge. Prof. Barrett chronicles another letter exchange between Rutledge and Wirtz, written about six months after Stevens left the Court. Rutledge wrote to Wirtz that “the way John Stevens panned out makes me wonder if your own recommendation even at long distance isn’t better than my own judgment on personal interview.”
And in another letter to a close friend, Rutledge wrote: “John Stevens, although taken sight unseen, turned out to be one of my best clerks. I now think I made a mistake in not keeping him for a second year, that is, in leaving the choice to him whether he would return [to Chicago] and plunge into his more active professional and political life when he did.”
Wirtz died in Washington on April 24, at age 98, four days after Stevens’ 90th birthday.