It Must Have Been One Heck of a Cover Letter

By Al Kamen
Friday, September 11, 2009

President Obama's insistence on being nice to absolutely everyone -- even to new Loop Favorite Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) -- is driving the left side of his base a little batty. But hey! He's nice to them, too.

Take for example, the May 21 speech in which Obama said he'd be real careful to "exhaust every avenue" in attempting to prosecute Guantanamo Bay prisoners but allowed that "a number of people" -- seriously dangerous folks -- may be locked up without trial for a long, long time.

That policy drew a blistering rebuke from Sarah H. Cleveland, a Columbia Law School professor of human and constitutional rights, who told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in June that, despite Obama's promised safeguards and oversight, "prolonged detention without trial offends the world's most basic sense of fairness."

So on Tuesday, Columbia announced Cleveland's appointment as counselor on international law in State Department legal adviser Harold H. Koh's office. She's going to "help develop the State Department's position" on international matters and "human rights cases" in federal courts and will be "the liaison between the legal adviser's office, the office of the solicitor general, the Department of Justice and the White House counsel."

Sounds as though she'll be in every meeting.


Speaking of legal matters, new Solicitor General Elena Kagan made her debut Wednesday at the Supreme Court -- her first appearance before any appellate court -- surviving a baptism by fire, with the toughest questioning by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Antonin Scalia.

Kagan appeared in a modern attire -- a dark suit and an open-necked sky-blue blouse -- ending the tradition that the government's top appellate lawyer, and everyone in the SG's office, wear a formal "morning coat" in appearances before the court.

Is it sexist to note the clothes of the country's first female solicitor general? No, it's historic, our colleague Robert Barnes reports.

Like everything at the court, this has been serious business. The late senator George W. Pepper of Pennsylvania used to talk of the scandal he caused as a young lawyer in the 1890s, when he arrived to argue before the court dressed in "street clothes."

"Who is that beast who dares to come in here with a gray coat?" Justice Horace Gray whispered to a colleague.

Kagan talked over the change with her fellow lawyers at the SG's office, including women who have worn the coat, and made discreet inquiries of the court. The current justices apparently told her they would not take offense if she wore whatever she wanted.

So, according to Justice Department spokeswoman Beverly Lumpkin, the new official policy on the morning coat is that "the men in OSG will continue to wear it, as will whichever women choose to wear it."

Now that that's over, questions are being raised as to when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who had just been up there on Tuesday for the investiture of new Justice Sonia Sotomayor, will argue a case. By tradition, the attorney general picks one case, usually some time during his first year, to argue before the high court.

Historically about three-fourths of the country's 81 attorneys general have done so, according to Supreme Court data. Former attorney general Michael B. Mukasey went up about four months after taking office. But his immediate predecessors -- Alberto R. Gonzales and John D. Ashcroft -- didn't make an appearance, nor did Reagan attorney general Edwin Meese III. Clinton attorney general Janet Reno didn't argue a case until she'd been in office nearly four years.

There's chatter that Holder's not inclined to appear before the court because he really doesn't feel like palling around with some of those folks. But we're told they all get along well enough. Okay, maybe not poker buddies but . . .


The National Journal's 2010 Almanac of American Politics, filled with enough facts to satisfy most any political junkie, has hit the bookstores. So now it's time for the Almanac Trivia Quiz.

1. Who represents the wealthiest congressional district? (a) Steve Israel of New York. (b) Gerry Connolly of Virginia. (c) Anna G. Eshoo of California.

2. Who represents the congressional district with the highest percentage of Hispanics? (a) Silvestre Reyes of Texas. (b) Ruben Hinojosa of Texas. (c) Lucille Roybal-Allard of California.

3. Even though he won by six percentage points, this incumbent senator spent the most money in 2008. Name the senator.

4. How many women in Congress have given birth while in office? (Bonus question! How many can you name? Hint: five current members, three former.)

5. Which congressional race was closest percentage-wise? (a) Fleming vs. Carmouche, Louisiana. (b) Perriello vs. Goode, Virginia. (c) McClintock vs. Brown, California.

6. Which three former members of Congress were defeated in their party primaries in 2008?

7. Which U.S. representative is a former governor?

8. Which freshman senator became his state's senior senator in 2009 after spending just 16 days as junior senator?

9. Who is the youngest senator?

10. Who is the longest-serving Republican senator?

11. Who are the two Buddhists in Congress?

Answers: 1. (b) Connolly. 2. (a) Reyes. 3. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). 4. Eight -- current Reps. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.); current Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Blanche Lambert Lincoln (D-Ark.); and former representatives Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), Enid Greene Waldholtz (R-Utah) and Yvonne Braithwaite Burke (D-Calif.). 5. (b) Perriello vs. Goode -- 727 votes. 6. David Davis (R-Tenn.), Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and Albert Wynn (D-Md.). 7. Mike Castle (Del.). 8. Mark Udall (D-Colo.). 9. 42-year-old Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). 10. 33-year veteran Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). 11. Hank Johnson (Ga.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii).

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