A Reuters examination of nine years of cases shows that 66 of the 17,000 lawyers who petitioned the Supreme Court succeeded at getting their clients' appeals heard at a remarkable rate. Their appeals were at least six times more likely to be accepted by the court than were all others filed by private lawyers during that period.
The lawyers are the most influential members of one of the most powerful specialties in America: the business of practicing before the Supreme Court. None of these lawyers is a household name. But many are familiar to the nine justices. That's because about half worked for justices past or present, and some socialize with them.
They are the elite of the elite: Although they account for far less than 1 percent of lawyers who filed appeals to the Supreme Court, these attorneys were involved in 43 percent of the cases the high court chose to decide from 2004 through 2012.
The Reuters examination of the Supreme Court's docket, the most comprehensive ever, suggests that the justices essentially have added a new criterion to whether the court takes an appeal - one that goes beyond the merits of a case and extends to the merits of the lawyer who is bringing it.
The results: a decided advantage for corporate America, and a growing insularity at the court. Some legal experts contend that the reliance on a small cluster of specialists, most working on behalf of businesses, has turned the Supreme Court into an echo chamber - a place where an elite group of jurists embraces an elite group of lawyers who reinforce narrow views of how the law should be construed.
Of the 66 most successful lawyers, 51 worked for law firms that primarily represented corporate interests. In cases pitting the interests of customers, employees or other individuals against those of companies, a leading attorney was three times more likely to launch an appeal for business than for an individual, Reuters found.
THE NATURE OF THE BUSINESS
"Working for corporate clients is the bread and butter of our practice," said Ashley Parrish, a partner at King & Spalding whose success rate in getting cases before the court ranks him among the top handful of lawyers in America. "As a large national firm, we are generally conflicted from representing individuals and advocacy groups in litigation against corporations," he said. "They are typically suing our clients or prospective clients."
The firm takes some criminal defense and First Amendment cases pro bono. But like other firms with Supreme Court practices, such cases are the exception.
"It's the nature of the business," Parrish said.
As a consequence, individuals seeking to challenge large companies are left to seek counsel from a pool of attorneys that's smaller and, collectively, less successful.
The court generally has a conservative, pro-business majority, but even one of its most liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, accepts the corporate tilt of the specialist bar that dominates the docket.
"Business can pay for the best counsel money can buy. The average citizen cannot," Ginsburg said. "That's just a reality."