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Lawyer relishes tough and unpopular cases before Supreme Court

Paul D. Clement is taking on the Obama administration in politically charged disputes over healthcare, immigration and redistricting.

December 26, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • Paul D. Clement says, Defending unpopular clients is what lawyers do.
Paul D. Clement says, Defending unpopular clients is what lawyers do. (Jeff Roberson/Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — This year, Paul D. Clement walked away from a multimillion-dollar salary with a national law firm after some partners objected when he signed on with House Republicans to defend the law that forbids the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages.

Since then, the 45-year-old Wisconsin native and former U.S. solicitor general has not been hurting for steady work or high-profile cases.

The Supreme Court agreed recently to hear his appeal on behalf of Arizona and its immigration enforcement law, giving Clement the distinction of being the lead lawyer in the three major politically charged cases to be decided by the high court in the coming months.

In all three, he is representing Republican state officials on the opposite side of the administration run by his former Harvard Law School classmate Barack Obama.

Clement is representing the 26 states, led by Florida, that say President Obama's healthcare law is unconstitutional. He is also arguing on behalf of the Texas GOP, which is fighting Latino groups and the Obama administration over control of four new seats in the U.S. House.

His fourth major case — the constitutional challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act — is still pending before a U.S. appeals court in Boston. When Obama and Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. announced they would not defend the law against a suit brought by a legally married gay couple, House Republicans enlisted Clement.

Clement's firm, King & Spalding, one of the nation's largest, announced after pressure from gay rights groups that it was dropping the case, leading Clement to resign.

"Defending unpopular clients is what lawyers do," he said.

In his spare time, he has also represented the National Football League and the National Basketball Assn. in their disputes with the players' unions.

Standing before the Supreme Court, Clement has the ability to confidently argue a complicated case — and not be thrown off by rapid-fire questions from justices.

In the last decade, arguments before the Supreme Court have been increasingly dominated by a dozen or more proven appellate lawyers. They have shown the capacity to fashion a convincing legal argument in their briefs as well as the coolness to defend it under fire.

And in the last decade, Clement has argued more cases in the high court than anyone else.

"These cases have Paul's name all over them: challenging, high-profile, important and requiring the judgment and expertise of a former solicitor general," said Lisa Blatt of Arnold & Porter, who has argued often before the Supreme Court.

Clement joined the George W. Bush administration in 2001 as the deputy to Solicitor Gen. Theodore B. Olson and then held the top job as the administration's advocate before the high court between 2004 and 2008. There, he argued for Bush's military detention policy at Guantanamo Bay, but he also defended federal campaign funding laws, protections for the environment and anti-discrimination protections for disabled employees.

Since leaving the government, Clement has taken on an array of cases. Some lawyers fault Clement for his choice of clients.

"Lawyers have choices. And Clement has made the choice to devote his efforts to conservative causes and to defending laws that harm lesbians and gay men," said Jon W. Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, a gay rights group in Los Angeles.

But he also has won praise from liberals. Two years ago, he volunteered to represent two black men from Iowa who were wrongly convicted and spent 26 years in prison. They were suing a county prosecutor alleged to have framed them. Shortly after the high court heard Clement's argument, the Iowa county agreed to settle the case and pay the men $12 million.

He also represented a children's rights group before the Supreme Court in a dispute over fees for civil rights claims. And this year he helped represent California prisoners before the high court, leading to the 5-4 ruling ordering the state to reduce its prison population.

"If you really practice law, you can tick off everybody," Clement said when he resigned from the law firm.

When asked recently about Obama, Clement noted that he was a junior editor on the Harvard Law Review when the 28-year-old Obama was elected as the top editor.

"He's been elected twice as my president," he said.

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