A Conservative Insider More at Home in the Law Than in Policy

By Robert Barnes and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Solicitor General Paul D. Clement has the rock-solid conservative credentials to be President Bush's choice yesterday as acting attorney general but is more steeped in the world of law than policymaking. He has been mentioned more often as a future Supreme Court justice than as a member of a president's Cabinet.

Compared with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Clement is a savvy Washington insider. He has spent nearly two decades learning his way around town, starting as a Supreme Court clerk and working his way through corporate law and Capitol Hill before finding a niche in the executive branch.

Clement "has a very strong sense of institutional arrangements and institutional integrity," said Kenneth W. Starr, a solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush who recruited him to an early job at Kirkland & Ellis.

Georgetown University law professor Viet D. Dinh, former head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department and a longtime Clement friend, calls the 41-year-old Harvard Law School graduate "the perfect solicitor general."

Because of his role as the government's top legal advocate in the courts, "he doesn't try to play the politics or policy game" that is part of the attorney general's portfolio, said Dinh, one of the authors of the USA Patriot Act. If Clement is asked about a policy, Dinh said, his response would be "about the likelihood of success or failure before the Supreme Court."

The solicitor general, who dresses for court appearances in a morning coat, is responsible for presenting the government's most important cases to the Supreme Court, and justices seem particularly engaged when Clement is before them.

He is known for making articulate, carefully constructed arguments without notes and has drawn praise from liberals such as Justice John Paul Stevens as well as from Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative for whom he served as a clerk.

Walter E. Dellinger III, who headed the Office of Legal Counsel during the Clinton administration and served as acting solicitor general, is as effusive in his praise as conservatives are. "It is indisputable that Paul Clement is one of the best Supreme Court advocates alive," Dellinger said. "He has a capacity for clarity and precision that is unexcelled by anyone in law."

Added Neal Katyal, a Georgetown University law professor who argued successfully against Clement in a Supreme Court case regarding terrorism detainees: "His number one attribute as a practitioner is figuring out the moderate position he can sell to the court."

Despite Clement's conservative background -- besides serving for Scalia, he has worked for former senator and attorney general John Ashcroft and was a Federalist Society member -- he has also endeared himself to some Democrats with his vigorous defense of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act.

Because of his experience in government and corporate law, Clement is often compared to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. -- favorably by conservatives such as Starr, and unfavorably by liberals such as Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice.

"He's courtly. He's polite. He is a good listener," Aron said. "In part, because the attitude of so many in this administration has been indifferent, if not hostile, . . . when you have a John Roberts, a Paul Clement, who is at least willing to engage in a conversation and is respectful of both sides of an argument, lawyers tend to be taken in. . . . In this town, style goes a long way."

Aron calls Clement "a movement conservative across the board" and a "true believer on the issues that drive the Bush administration: Guantanamo, civil rights, right to choose."

Clement is discussed as a possible Supreme Court nominee in a Republican administration, and those who know him say they see the judiciary as a better fit than the attorney general's office. "He truly sees himself as an officer of the court," said Dinh. Or as solicitors general are sometimes called, "the 10th justice."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company