City Picks Head of Team for Supreme Court Case

Walter E. Dellinger is a former acting U.S. solicitor general and has argued cases before the Supreme Court.
Walter E. Dellinger is a former acting U.S. solicitor general and has argued cases before the Supreme Court. (Daniel Acker - Bloomberg News)
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 4, 2008

Acting D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles has selected former acting U.S. solicitor general Walter E. Dellinger to defend the District's handgun ban in a high-stakes Supreme Court case.

Dellinger, now with the private firm of O'Melveny & Myers, had been working on the handgun case with a team of more than a dozen lawyers under the direction of D.C. special counsel Alan B. Morrison. Nickles fired Morrison late last week, however, in what Morrison has called a politically motivated act.

Nickles said Dellinger, will assume the lead role in the case without a hiccup because he helped Morrison write the 15,000-word brief that is due to the high court today. The Supreme Court is likely to hear the case in March.

Among the cases Dellinger has argued before the high court are ones dealing with physician-assisted suicide and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.

"I have confidence in Walter Dellinger," Nickles said. "He has argued a huge number of great cases."

Nickles also said he has brought on Robert Long, a former colleague of Nickles's from Covington & Burling, to assist the team. D.C. Solicitor General Todd Kim and Thomas Goldstein of Akin Gump, who also were part of Morrison's team, will remain on the case in key positions, Nickles said.

After Morrison was fired, some city leaders expressed concern that the District would not have a government lawyer in charge of the high-profile handgun-ban case. The city appealed to the Supreme Court to maintain the ban after a lower court overturned it in the spring. The court has not examined a Second Amendment case in 70 years.

Nickles said that he considered handing the reins to Kim, who has never argued before the Supreme Court, but that Kim was concerned that his time would be limited because of a family matter.

Ultimately, Nickles said, "Dellinger was the most experienced guy."

Dellinger served three years as U.S. assistant attorney general and head of the Office of Legal Counsel under President Bill Clinton. He currently is special counsel to the Board of Directors of the New York Stock Exchange, according to O'Melveny & Myers's Web site.

Nickles was Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's general counsel until two weeks ago, when Attorney General Linda Singer resigned in frustration, saying Fenty (D) relied more heavily on Nickles to make key legal decisions. Fenty replaced her with Nickles, who met with Morrison on Dec. 21 and chose to dismiss him last Friday.

Morrison, who has argued 20 Supreme Court cases and is highly regarded in the city's legal community, has complained that Nickles removed him as a way to purge Singer's allies from the attorney general's office. But a government source said Nickles was upset when Morrison failed to heed some suggestions Nickles made about the handgun brief.

"Bottom line: I did not have confidence in Morrison," Nickles said.

Morrison said yesterday that he had one conversation with Nickles about a relatively "tiny point" in the brief and that the matter was resolved after discussions between them and several other lawyers.

"That can't be the basis of why he lost confidence in me," Morrison said.

Morrison is well-regarded in the city's legal community, but so is Dellinger, who has argued 17 cases before the Supreme Court and compiled a record of 12 wins and 5 loses. He has two other cases scheduled before the high court before the D.C. gun ban case will be heard.

Dellinger said he had never met Nickles before Nickles offered him the lead role Wednesday evening. Although Dellinger said he thinks highly of Morrison, he said that ultimately, "my obligation is to the District and to do what is best in the case. Therefore, in these circumstances, I agreed to do the arguments."

His work for the city has been pro bono.

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