Continental Divides

Ms. Nickol Goes to Washington

The prestigious position the young Montana attorney applied for: Supreme Court Fellow, filled by one carefully chosen candidate each year

By John McCaslin

“Disbelief,” is how Victoria Nickol describes her emotions, “and a lot of gratitude for people who told me I should and could apply, when I kind of felt like, ‘Oh, they’re not actually going to have interest in somebody from Montana.’ And I’m so glad I was wrong.”

The prestigious position the young Montana attorney applied for: Supreme Court Fellow, filled by one carefully chosen candidate each year.

Learning that the 2023-2024 appointment was hers and hers alone has left Nickol with “a feeling of incredible wonder, that I will get to work inside the Supreme Court, which for a lawyer is kind of like going to the Super Bowl, but maybe a little more nerdy I guess.”

Nerdish or not, an early-career accomplishment of such magnitude is one that few in the legal profession ever attain.

A native Montanan, Nickol has close ties to the Flathead, spending summers at her grandparents’ home on Flathead Lake. In fact, her first preference to meet for this interview was outdoors at Lake Baked in Bigfork.

“My grandparents on my mom’s side have had a house on Flathead Lake [that’s] been part of my grandma’s life since the 1930s, so we spend summers up there. Flathead is a big part of my life,” she says. “Both of my parents are native Montanans; mom’s family is from Butte, dad’s family is from the Hi-Line, a town called Ledger, the closest quote-unquote ‘big city’ is Shelby.”

Growing up in Helena and a member of Carroll College’s Class of 2016, Nickol earned her J.D. with high honors from the University of Montana School of Law, where she was co-editor-in-chief of the Montana Law Review.

She began her Supreme Court fellowship last week, Sept. 5, assigned no less to the Office of the Counselor to the Chief Justice. And talk about timing.

Seldom has the Supreme Court found itself under the microscope like it is today, what with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito acknowledging personal travel and gifts paid for by outside interests. As a result, public opinion of the nation’s highest court has shifted in recent weeks, with one poll finding an overwhelming 90 percent of Americans believing the justices should be held to a formal ethics code. Forty percent of Americans answering another survey said the nine justices wield too much power, up from 21 percent in 2019.

Among the highest-ranking Supreme Court officers who undoubtedly is weighing in on the current turmoil is Judge Robert M. Dow, appointed in December as Counselor to the Chief Justice, John G. Roberts. Dow, who previously sat on the U.S. District Court bench for the Northern District of Illinois, is in effect Roberts’ chief of staff, helping to oversee the court’s policies and initiatives. There’s no doubt he has the chief justice’s ear.

Nickol, meanwhile, reports to Dow. In fact, the chief justice’s counselor personally interviewed the Montanan during her application process.

Most importantly, having just left one year of private practice in Missoula, following three years of federal clerkships in Montana, Nickol is now able to participate firsthand in the nation’s highest tribunal for all cases and disputes arising under the laws of the United States and Constitution (the court functions as both guardian and interpreter of the Constitution).

The court’s proceedings, she will find, will really ramp up during the upcoming October Term, with oral arguments set to begin on the first Monday of the month.

In addition, Nickol is busy learning the ropes of the bustling nation’s capital, home to the federal government’s three branches — the White House, the Capitol, and the Supreme Court — not to mention imposing monuments, memorials, and museums.

“I’ve had a week to settle in and figure out things,” she tells me. “Like practicing taking the bus, because I’ve never lived somewhere with public transport before! So it was me and a bunch of DC school children on these buses in the morning, while I try to figure out how they work. And actually it’s been great, I have really enjoyed it, but I felt kind of like a little kid myself doing that.”

All in all, the Supreme Court fellowship was “not a part of my plan at all. But I do feel really grateful, it feels very validating … of the education I’ve received and the experiences I’ve had in Montana.”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.