Zachary Newkirk’s day job is to fight for voting rights. After hours, he sometimes engages in another kind of combat—of wits—and says things like, “Famous Americans for $1,600.”
Both jobs have gone well.
The 31-year-old Perkins Coie associate won six games on the television game show “Jeopardy!” and has landed a spot in the tournament of champions later this year.
“There is a lot of luck involved,” he said of the winning streak. “No one can be an expert in every subject.”
Newkirk, of Alexandria, Va., began the streak early last year with four wins. His appearances were suspended when Covid-19 curbed travel. After he resumed taping the shows in December, his run had spanned more months than any “Jeopardy!” contestant in history.
He became one of the few to appear with both longtime host Alex Trebek, who died in early November, and his replacement, Ken Jennings, the record-breaking “Jeopardy!” champion who has been hosting the show temporarily.
“Both were personable and engaging,” Newkirk said. “Ken had been a contestant for a long time, so he understood what we were going through, and Alex was more authoritative. He was an awesome TV legend.”
Newkirk won the next two matches after his return, but he lost the seventh game, which aired Feb. 1, after amassing winnings of $124,871. Still, he’ll be among the 15 high-scorers facing each other in the tournament later this year.
When he’s not busy on “Jeopardy!,” Newkirk works with partner Marc Elias, head of Perkins Coie’s political law practice and a Democratic election lawyer who has brought lawsuits to loosen voting regulations in states.
Not long after his first show appearances, Newkirk worked on a dispute over Wisconsin’s deadline for receiving absentee ballots after Election Day.
He’s also been involved in the firm’s friend-of-the-court brief in Black Lives Matter v. Trump, which was filed against the former president and other officials for their treatment of protesters in Lafayette Square in June 2020.
“‘Jeopardy!’ was more calming compared to dealing with high-stakes voting rights issues,” he said.
To become a contestant, Newkirk, a Duke University School of Law graduate, passed an online screening test taken by thousands of people. Then, he was asked to audition. After doing well on the mock game, he was invited to appear on the show in early 2020.
“I decided to do it, because if I won $1,000, that would cover the cost of traveling there,” he said.
Initially, it was rough going, Newkirk recalled.
“In the first game, I was negative $1,200, and all I could think was that I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” he said. “But then the historically black colleges category came up.”
The question? Which university in Nashville has a master’s-to-PhD bridge program with Fisk University. His correct answer? Vanderbilt.
“I’ve been watching the show my whole life,” Newkirk said. “When I was clerking for a federal district judge, those of us in the office would sometimes shout out the answers if ‘Jeopardy!’ was on.”