Fifteen years ago, Shon Hopwood walked out of a Nebraska bank with a pile of money he’d just taken at gunpoint. Ten years later, he completed his sentence in a federal prison having achieved something few lawyers ever accomplish — convincing the Supreme Court to hear a prisoner’s case and then winning the case by a 9-0 vote. Next year, he will walk into a federal courthouse to sit at the right hand of one of the most powerful judges in the country.
Hopwood began his path from federal felon to the elite reaches of the legal profession after he discovered his prison’s law library and that he was skilled at advising his fellow inmates seeking to challenge their sentences in court. Indeed, it is likely that Hopwood is the most successful prison lawyer in American history. In 2002, the Supreme Court considered over seven thousand petitions from prisoners and other indigent litigants and it agreed to hear just eight of these cases. One of them was a petition Hopwood wrote on a prison typewriter. When former Solicitor General Seth Waxman agreed to take the case pro bono, he insisted upon working with Hopwood to prepare the briefs for the justices. Eventually, every single justice voted for Waxman & Hopwood’s client.
Now, Hopwood is on the cusp of graduating from the University of Washington School of Law, and he just received a job offer from a federal appellate judge.
No job is more coveted by fresh law school graduates than a clerkship with a United States Court of Appeals judge. Clerks serve as judges’ most trusted advisers, often drafting the judge’s opinions and conferring with them on confidential matters that virtually no one else is permitted to discuss with the judge. It also brands the lawyer with an elite credential for the rest of their career. Law firms regularly pay young former federal law clerks $60,000 signing bonuses just for showing up for their first day of work. Moreover, Hopwood landed a clerkship on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the second most powerful court in the country, which handles many of the most complex and challenging cases in the nation. DC Circuit clerks frequently move on to an even more prestigious assignment — a clerkship on the Supreme Court.
The identity of Hopwood’s future boss only adds to the improbability of his story. Hopwood will clerk for Judge Janice Rogers Brown, a severely conservative judge who once claimed that all labor, business or Wall Street regulation is constitutionally suspect. Many deeply unflattering things can be said about Judge Brown — and ThinkProgress has said many of these things. But her decision to judge Hopwood according to the man he is now, and not by the man he once was, is a genuinely classy move on her part and she deserves praise for making this hire.
Hopwood chronicled the full story of his transformation from a bank robber into a successful Supreme Court advocate in his memior: Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption.