Amy Kett

by Amy Kett

Shortly after finishing law school, I had the privilege of working as a law clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor during the Supreme Court’s 1992–93 Term. I wish I could say that SOC, as she was known to her clerks, hired me for my legal acumen, but it was actually because of the two hobbies I listed on the last line of my resumé: piano (I had taken lessons through college) and aerobics, which I attended at the law school gym. Luckily for me, Justice O’Connor turned out to be both a music lover and a fitness enthusiast.

Because she was the only female Justice at the time, Justice O’Connor organized a women’s-only step aerobics class for Court staff and selected friends, which met several mornings a week before the start of the workday. It was an unwritten job requirement that I participate in the class, and I happily did so. The class met on the basketball court on the top floor of the Supreme Court building, also known as “The Highest Court in the Land.” One morning when the aerobics instructor failed to show up, SOC — then in her 60s and a recent cancer survivor — matter-of-factly turned on the music and taught the class herself. 

Piano performance also became an unwritten job requirement. The Court had recently acquired a Baldwin grand piano, which occupied a large room in the Supreme Court Building known as the East Conference Room. Leonard Bernstein had signed the piano’s soundboard with the inscription, “and justice for all.” I had not played for an audience since I was a teenager (more than a decade earlier) and was uncomfortable doing so. However, no one said “no” to Sandra Day O’Connor.

Justice O’Connor first asked me to play at a luncheon she hosted for the small group of women who attended the aerobics class. I dusted off Debussy’s Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum from the Children’s Corner Suite and the Brahms Intermezzo, Opus 118, Number 2. The luncheon was a low-key event, but I still calmed my nerves by talking about each of the pieces. Taking more than a little creative license, I described Opus 118, Number 2, as a love letter from Brahms to Clara Schumann. The story proved to be a hit with the luncheon attendees.

A few weeks before the end of the Term, Justice O’Connor announced that I would also be performing at the annual SOC clerk reunion. The reunion was a formal affair attended by dozens of SOC’s former clerks and their significant others, including legal practitioners, law professors, and judges. I was petrified. On top of that, I had virtually no time to practice. The end of the Term is a busy time, and we clerks were working around the clock. I decided to play Opus 118, Number 2, because it was the piece with which I was most familiar.

The night of the event, the guests were seated at their dinner tables in the East Conference Room. I sat down at the piano and lifted my hands to play. But before I could begin, Justice O’Connor called out from her table, “Amy!! TELL THE STORY!!!” So, I had to repeat my made-up story about the love letter to Clara Schumann before that much larger audience, to my considerable embarrassment. 

My performance that evening left much to be desired, given that my hands and legs shook the entire time. But all was not lost. The current clerks were responsible for the evening’s entertainment, and my three co-clerks and I followed the Brahms with a musical revue we had written about the Court, with my husband Steve accompanying us at the piano. 

I played the role of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had just been nominated by President Clinton to succeed retiring Justice Byron White. Wearing one of SOC’s judicial robes, glasses, and my hair in an RBG-style bun, I sang “If I Were a Justice,” to the tune of “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof. One of my co-clerks sang “I am Sandra,” to the tune of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman.” That number included my favorite line from the program: “I am strong, I am in-scrut-able,” which perfectly captured the occasionally unpredictable nature of Justice O’Connor’s decision making and got a big laugh. There was also a rendition of “That’s Amore” in honor of Justice Scalia’s Italian heritage (“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s Scalia!”). 

For the finale, we danced a can-can with life-sized puppets resembling all nine Justices, which we had borrowed from Arena Stage, and belted out a chorus of “It’s a Grand Old Court,” sung, of course, to the tune of “It’s a Grand Old Flag.” Cell phones had not been invented yet, and so I remain optimistic that no one recorded our little production!

There were other musical highlights from my year at the Court, including the annual holiday party for staff in the beautifully decorated Great Hall, followed by caroling in the East Conference Room. Chief Justice Rehnquist, also a music lover, led the caroling. He had invited Judge Edward Becker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, who was an excellent pianist, to accompany the caroling. In addition, Justice O’Connor secured tickets for me, Steve, and Steve’s parents to attend an Easter service at the National Cathedral, where she served as a lector. We had seats at the front of the church in the choir, opposite the brass section, so the music for the service was in glorious surround-sound. 

After my clerkship, it was about twenty years before I started taking piano lessons again and, eventually, playing for other people through AMSF. Performing for audiences remains a challenge for me, as I know it is for many AMSF members. But I persist because learning and sharing music with others is, for me, one of life’s great joys. It nourishes mind, body, and spirit, creates lasting friendships, and sometimes even opens unexpected doors — as my experience with Justice O’Connor attests.