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Solicitor general to step down

Paul Clement, who will leave in June, defended Guantanamo policies before the high court.

May 15, 2008|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. Solicitor Gen. Paul D. Clement, the lawyer who spoke for the Bush administration in the Supreme Court but not always in a way that pleased conservatives, said Wednesday that he was stepping down next month.

Clement, 41, has three young sons and said he wanted to spend time with his family before looking for a job with a law firm. He is the latest of several Bush administration officials to depart, which is common in the final year of a presidency.

The solicitor general has the duty to defend the laws passed by Congress, as well as the task of representing federal agencies and the White House. That mix makes for some uncomfortable moments. For example, Clement successfully defended the campaign finance law known as the McCain-Feingold Act that many conservatives, including President Bush, saw as an unconstitutional limit on free speech.

Two years ago, he strongly defended the federal government's broad protection for wetlands, winning plaudits from environmentalists but criticism from defenders of property rights.

In March, Clement angered some gun rights advocates when he urged the Supreme Court to uphold all of the existing federal restrictions on firearms. He argued that the 2nd Amendment protected an individual's right to own a gun -- the key issue before the court -- but also said the justices should preserve reasonable regulations, such as the ban on the sale of new machine guns, and the Brady Act, which calls for background checks on those who buy a handgun.

But Clement also defended the Bush administration's policies in the war on terrorism, including the holding of foreign prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without giving them a chance to go before a judge. Congress said the "enemy combatants" had no rights in U.S. courts, and Clement said the justices should uphold the law. A challenge to the Guantanamo policy is pending before the court and will be decided by late June.

Clement came to the Justice Department in 2001 as the top deputy to then-Solicitor Gen. Theodore Olson. He succeeded him in 2005. During his seven years, Clement argued 49 cases in the high court and won wide respect for his skill as a lawyer.

"He's a very talented advocate, as good as anyone in recent memory," said Washington lawyer Carter G. Phillips, who argues regularly before the high court.

"Paul was a terrific solicitor general," said Walter Dellinger, who held the same position in the Clinton administration. "His extraordinary intelligence, solid common sense and ease of manner combine to make him a truly superb advocate before the Supreme Court."

Clement, who grew up in Wisconsin, went to Harvard Law School and worked on the law review under its then-editor, Barack Obama. He came to the Justice Department with solidly conservative credentials, having served as a law clerk to federal Judge Laurence H. Silberman and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Clement also had the distinction of serving as acting attorney general for a single day. In August, when Alberto R. Gonzales announced his resignation, the president said Clement would serve as the acting head of the Justice Department.

But Gonzales did not officially leave until Sept. 17, and the next day Bush announced that Peter D. Keisler, the head of the civil division, would serve as acting head of the department so Clement could prepare for the start of the new Supreme Court term.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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