Sri Srinivasan: A Seat on the Bench

Photo of Sri Srinivasan
Photo by Katherine Lambert

In 2002, a 34-year-old attorney in the solicitor general’s office stood before the Supreme Court, preparing to argue what he anticipated would be a close case on the death penalty. “I was understandably quite nervous,” says Sri Srinivasan about his first case before the Court. As he walked to the podium, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, LLB ’52 
(BA/MA ’48), leaned toward Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, LLB ’52 (BA ’50), and asked, audibly to the whole courtroom, how to pronounce 
the Indian-born attorney’s name.

“That was a nice moment of levity that eased the tension,” Srinivasan recalls. “It was also thoughtful of him to try to get the pronunciation right.”

Little more than a decade later, 
Srinivasan’s name is now well known to Supreme Court justices. 
After winning that first case in a 5-4 vote, he went on to argue a whopping 25 cases before the Court, including representing the United States in opposing the Defense of Marriage Act this past term. The Court once awarded him victories in two unrelated cases on the same day, which he modestly describes as “kind of a neat 

This year, Srinivasan, JD/MBA ’95 (BA ’89), was appointed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, following confirmation hearings including a unanimous vote of approval by the Senate that one reporter described as a “love fest.” And he’s widely rumored to be at the top of President Obama’s short list of nominees to the highest court should a vacancy arise.

“Sri is the whole package—a brilliant lawyer, a calm temperament, a perfect colleague, and an incredibly decent person,” says M. Elizabeth 
Magill, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean. “I am gratified that someone of his talents and disposition is serving the country in the judiciary.”

Justice O’Connor, who swore in Srinivasan this September, described her former clerk as “always fair, faultless and fabulous in his year as my clerk.” She added, “He will be a superb judge.”

From a young age, Srinivasan knew he’d go to graduate school—though he wasn’t sure he would be a lawyer, never mind a judge.

“School was part of the fabric of our lives,” he says. After immigrating to the United States when he was 4, he grew up in the “quintessential college town,” Lawrence, Kansas, where his father was a math professor. He was thrilled when he was admitted to Stanford for his undergraduate studies. But first he had to make the case to his 
father, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, earlier in his career, who suggested his son compose an essay explaining his choice of Stanford over Cal. “I dutifully did so,” says Srinivasan. “Apparently, it was enough to persuade him.”

After finishing his undergraduate studies, Srinivasan spent two years working for the County of San Mateo, helping prepare the county’s budget and learning how local government operates. “That was a really nice opportunity to experience government on the ground floor,” he recalls.

As for which graduate program, law school beat out medicine in part, he jokes, because as an undergraduate he didn’t like science classes. But law also seemed to provide a gateway into a career in public service and to working on the public policy issues he’d grown increasingly interested in. At Stanford, he pursued a joint degree in law and business—both because the combination interested him, but also because his sister was in the MBA program and, he says, “She’d helped me get through my undergraduate years, so why not business school?” The three Srinivasan siblings together have six Stanford degrees, and between his parents, who have relocated here, and two sisters there are three Srinivasan homes within five blocks of Stanford’s campus.

In law school he soon got to know the legendary constitutional scholar Gerald Gunther, who was his 1L Con Law instructor, and he wound up helping Professor Gunther on a biography of Judge Learned Hand. Srinivasan’s interest in the Constitution continued to blossom under Gunther and former dean Kathleen Sullivan. A paper Srinivasan wrote for Gunther—which tackled what he saw as confusion in how courts interpreted the First Amendment and incidental restrictions to the freedom of speech—was later published in a law journal.

Along with exposing Srinivasan to the upper echelon of constitutional scholars, his law school years provided him with another opportunity that helped his eventual career: a summer internship in D.C. with the solicitor general’s office. It’s an office Srinivasan has returned to four separate times—first as an intern, then as a Bristow Fellow, an assistant solicitor general, and principal deputy solicitor general—under five different solicitors general and under Republican and Democratic presidents, who appoint both the solicitor general and principal deputy. “The Office of the Solicitor General has a deeply ingrained fundamental institutional culture that has stood the test of time for decades,” he says. “I went because I wanted to do public service and do an appellate practice at the very highest levels I could.”

In between those stints, Srinivasan returned repeatedly to O’Melveny and Meyers, as a summer associate, associate, and eventually partner and chair of its appellate practice. “O’Melveny has an incredibly rich tradition of people who had careers in private practice and then public service,” says Srinivasan. That included U.S. statesman Warren Christopher, JD ’49, a partner who helped recruit him. “It was an interesting experience to work alongside the solicitor general’s team and then turn around and argue against them,” he adds. “You certainly grow as a lawyer from getting such a varied set of experiences.”

Pam Karlan worked with Srinivasan on the successful Defense of Marriage Act challenge this past term. “He’s just a first- rate lawyer—he’s smart, balanced, has great judgment, and is fun to work with,” says Karlan, Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law and co-director of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic. “He’s also one of the few practitioners who always argues without notes.”

Outside of his legal practice, Srinivasan is known as a sports nut, in particular about basketball, which he plays and watches avidly. The Kansas Jayhawks are a “lifelong obsession,” he says. He’s even taking his children to the Bahamas at Thanksgiving to watch the Jayhawks play in a tournament at a resort.

“He has a great jump shot and loves—is obsessed with—the Jayhawks,” says Magill.

As he shapes his chambers this fall, Srinivasan is influenced by his experiences as a clerk—for Judge Harvie Wilkinson III (where his colleague was Dean
Magill) and for Justice O’Connor. Both were very collaborative chambers, a tradition he hopes to carry on, as he forms his own. But there’s one aspect of the experience he’s not going to copy.

“Judge Wilkinson would run with his clerks every day during lunch hour,” says Srinivasan. “That tradition will not be carried on here.” Magill may know why, but isn’t giving anything away. “I refuse to say who generally finished first when we ran around the track every day with Judge Wilkinson in 1995-96,” she says. SL