“You want him; he is the best advocate of his generation,” says an old boss, another former solicitor general and Democratic nemesis, Kenneth W. Starr.
It is why, when 26 states decided to challenge the health-care law passed by Congress and championed by President Obama, which mandates coverage for all Americans, they hired Clement, who frequently bills at about $1,000 an hour but is handling the case for a capped fee of $250,000.
The personal stakes in the battle are high for Clement, 45. He has been a longtime favorite of conservative leaders, frequently mentioned by Republicans as being on the short list of Supreme Court nominees should the GOP win back the White House. Such talk has steadily grown since 2005, when President George W. Bush tapped him, at 38, as the nation’s solicitor general, an office that has been a gateway to the Supreme Court in recent years.
Legal allies and foes alike talk with awe about Clement’s professional style. So immersed is he in his cases — their arcane facts, their constitutional precedents, the logical hoops he’d like the justices to join him in jumping through — that he argues without notes. He disdains speechifying.
“Presidential debate-mode doesn’t work,” he says.
At a lectern, his conversational tone is amiably alto, deferential, Midwestern earnest; friends think it befits his suburban Milwaukee background.
“He’s a straight-shooter and honorable,” says Neal Katyal, a former principal deputy solicitor general in the Obama administration, against whom Clement has argued. “Paul’s very likable.”
Now and then, during oral arguments, Clement sports a grin in the midst of making a move or absorbing a momentary battering from the justices. His congeniality doesn’t so much mask his fierce intensity as abet it. His whole mien indicates that these are happy days; that there is nowhere else he’d rather be than with this pack of robed contrarians. It is like watching Bobby Fischer channeling Richie Cunningham from “Happy Days.”
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The grin belies his frequent jitters there. In 2004, as Clement approached the lectern in the Supreme Court to argue a case, his left hand trembled. Sitting inches away, Randy Barnett, nervous, too, as he prepared to argue the other side, studied the quivering hand with fascination. If Clement was tense, the condition must be the natural state of being here, thought a relieved Barnett.