Should the Supreme Court Have Unpaid Interns?

Jonathan Weil joined Bloomberg News as a columnist in 2007, and his columns on finance and accounting won Best in the Business awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in 2009 and 2010.
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One day I hope some young turk's lawsuit complaining about an unpaid internship makes it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, because there it would put a spotlight on a great irony: The Supreme Court has unpaid interns, too.

What got me thinking about this was David Carr's column in the New York Times today, riffing about the inequities of the current system where unpaid internships for students and other people trying to gain experience are still commonplace. Carr, being a media columnist, focused mainly on media companies.

"Unpaid internships, which are to the publishing business what the mailroom was to Hollywood studios, are under broad attack," he wrote. "Both Hearst Magazines and Conde Nast have been sued by former interns who assert that they performed a great deal of work for little or no money. Hearst, which has vigorously defended itself in court, is contemplating dumping internships, and Women's Wear Daily revealed last month that Conde Nast would no longer provide internships."

"These internships are by their very nature discriminatory," Carr went on. "Only a certain kind of young person can afford to spend a summer working for no pay." In other words, people without connections and without money need not apply, especially if they're drowning in student-loan debt already.

If an unpaid intern's lawsuit did get heard by the Supreme Court, the parties no doubt would be familiar with the court's own practices. According to a brochure on the court's website, "The Judicial Internship Program at the Supreme Court offers advanced undergraduates and graduating seniors who have interests in law, management, and social sciences a unique opportunity to gain exposure to the field of judicial administration through work in the Office of the Counselor to the Chief Justice." Interns work 8-hour days, five days a week, it says. "Thus, other employment is not feasible."

Intern duties include summarizing news articles, preparing memos and letters, as well as conducting research for speeches and for briefings of visiting foreign dignitaries. They don't work with justices or on cases pending before the court. Side benefits include the chance to "take advantage of the court's extensive resources to work on their own academic or other research projects."

What the interns don't receive is a paycheck. "The internship is unpaid," the court's brochure says, although there is one caveat to that: "Depending on funding, a monetary scholarship may be available." To become eligible for that, interns first must successfully complete the internship, and they must return to college or graduate school within one year.

In addition, the court has a separate program, also unpaid, through its curator's office, where interns can work full-time or part-time gaining "valuable curatorial experience while learning about museum practices and the work of the Supreme Court."

Paid or not, of course, many people would view working at the Supreme Courtas an incredible opportunity. Jaime Greenblatt, an attorney in New York who worked as an unpaid Supreme Court intern in 2007 while she was a Cornell University student, said in an interview that "it was one of the best experiences of my professional life." She added: "You can be in the file room putting away cert. petitions, and you're learning about Fourth Amendment issues." The pay wasn't why she was there, she said. "I was paid in experience."

Someday the justices may have to ask if what's good for the court is also good for the rest of the country. The example the court is setting speaks volumes already.

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