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Cecelia Klingele, left, talks with UW-Madison law student, Chelsee Martinez, Tuesday. Klingele was the first UW-Madison Law School graduate to clerk for the Supreme Court. MICHELLE STOCKER - The Capital Times

The ultimate feat for an ambitious law student is a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship, an opportunity bestowed on only the top graduates - often from Ivy League law schools.

So when Cecelia Klingele was chosen for the elite job, she was the first UW-Madison Law School graduate in more than 60 years to make it to the high court's inner chambers.

As clerk for Justice John Paul Stevens, she spent the last year wading through the most important constitutional questions of the day. After that experience, a big firm might have offered her a $250,000 signing bonus. Instead, she chose to come back to Madison for a two-year teaching appointment at the UW-Madison law school.

"There were many appealing options, but when this opportunity presented itself, we were excited to have it," she said.

Klingele, 33, isn't what one pictures from an attorney who just came from the halls of power. The graduate of Wisconsin Rapids High School has an unassuming manner, a pixie voice and, oh yeah, six children.

She has five girls - ranging in age from 6 weeks to 11 years - and a 21-year old foster son that she and her husband, Brad, adopted. Although she had two children in law school and was pregnant during the end of her clerkship, she shrugs off the notion that her accomplishments are any more impressive because of her large brood.

"I understand that people seem to be amazed that I have so many children, partly because it's unusual to have larger families these days," she said. "But also, men aren't asked the same questions...I think the answer is I do it the same way anybody would. I have a supportive husband and a great extended family and friend network."

Klingele's new job at the law school also offers her some flexibility. She's teaching a course on criminal justice for first year law students this semester.

Klingele's path to the Supreme Court started in law school, where she was a stand-out student who worked on projects at the school's criminal justice center, the Frank J. Remington Center.

Walter Dickey, professor and director of the center, calls her "the best student I ever had."

After law school, she clerked for two years for Barbara Crabb, chief district judge for the Western District of Wisconsin, and for Judge Susan H. Black of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh District.

"She is a very, very hard worker," Crabb said. "Very bright, very kind, very compassionate. She has an enormous ability to analyze legal issues and a great sense of concern for all of the people who are litigating."

Crabb encouraged her to apply for a clerkship with Stevens. Klingele said she flew to Washington D.C., interviewed with the justice, and got the call that she was hired while still in the Supreme Court gift shop, getting knick-knacks for her family.

As a clerk, Klingele got an intimate look at one of the most influential and cloistered institutions in the country. Yet, what she can say about the experience is very limited. Because the justice is considered her client, she can't give out information about the cases on which she worked.

"It's sort of sad to have this great experience and not be able to share it," she said.

With Stevens' three other clerks - most justices have four - she was responsible for reading through the 10,000 some petitions from people asking the court to overturn a lower court's decision. She also helped Stevens prepare for oral arguments, conduct research on opinions, and review the facts in death penalty cases.

With six children, Klingele's stint on the court couldn't all be serious. Yes, she spent some long nights on the couch at the office.

But her children had an affectionate nickname for the longest-serving Supreme Court justice, who has a propensity for a certain type of neckware: Justice Bowtie.