Susan L. Carney became a federal circuit judge in June 2011, following her nomination to the Court of Appeals by President Barack Obama. The granddaughter of Greek immigrants who worked in the mills of Manchester, New Hampshire, she was born and grew up in the suburbs of Boston, the oldest child and only girl in a family of six children. Her Greek-American mother, Cleopatra Olgas Carney, and her father, John Robert Carney, Jr., of Irish and Swedish descent, found each other in Boston after the end of World War II. Both were Navy veterans able to get a college education with the help of the GI Bill. They met in the library line at Boston University, waiting to borrow books.
John Carney became a trial lawyer in Boston, practicing law with a partner in a small firm with an office that looked out on the Old Granary Burying Ground. A photograph of Judge Learned Hand hung prominently in his office. Cleo Carney stayed home caring for the children until the youngest went off to school. She then began to work part-time in a retail clothing store, a setting in which she continued to work until age 88, only a few years before she died in 2015.
At age ten (in 1961), Carney began to study the cello, and classical music became a lifelong interest. When she was 15 years old, her hometown of Weston, Massachusetts, chose her to live in France and attend school there through a local exchange program. She did so, from August 1967 through August 1968. After returning to Weston and finishing high school, she enrolled in Radcliffe College (soon to become part of Harvard College), where she continued to play the cello and majored in Russian History and Literature. She graduated
cum laude in 1973. She then worked for a year as a Teaching Fellow and instructor in French and Russian at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
After her fellowship, she attended the University of Chicago Law School for her first year of law school. She then returned to Cambridge to complete her J.D. studies, joining the women who made up approximately 15 percent of the class at Harvard Law School. Following her graduation from law school
magna cum laude in 1977, she clerked in Boston for Judge Levin H. Campbell of the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The model set by Daniel Steiner, Esq., as counsel to Harvard President Derek Bok, then a novel role, and one that Carney found compelling--prompted her after her clerkship to join Ropes & Gray, which represented many colleges, universities, and large not-for-profit organizations in New England.
Not long after she arrived at the firm, however, her husband, Lincoln Caplan, received a fellowship that led them to take a “one-year detour” from Boston to Washington, D.C. The detour turned into 19 years in the nation’s capital. Ropes & Gray had no Washington office then, so Carney joined a small labor-oriented litigation firm, about half of whose lawyers were women. She became a partner there. Over the following years, she worked at other firms, including Bredhoff & Kaiser, and pursued a varied path in the law that included engagements for Georgetown University and George Washington University, a project on court funding prepared for the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, and almost two years as associate counsel for the Peace Corps, based in Washington.
In 1998, she and her husband (with their daughter, then age ten) moved to her husband’s native New Haven, and Carney began work as associate, then deputy general counsel at Yale University, serving as acting general counsel from June through December 2008. Her work at Yale included advising on federal regulatory regimes concerning the conduct of research, negotiating research funding transactions and intellectual property matters, participating in the management of certain litigation, and handling a broad array of other legal matters.
Throughout her time at Yale, she was active in the National Association of College & University Attorneys, serving on the Board of Directors of that organization from 2007 through 2010. She also served on the boards of the bipartisan Women Organizing Women Political Action Committee and the New Haven Youth Soccer League, among other Connecticut organizations. Since assuming her position on the bench, she has also taught at Yale Law School and become a member of the American Law Institute. In 2013, she was elected to a six-year term as a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University.