Edwin Kneedler a 'savvy' choice to argue suit against Ariz. immigration law

Edwin S. Kneedler is a veteran of the solicitor general's office.
Edwin S. Kneedler is a veteran of the solicitor general's office. (Lonnie Tague/ Department Of Justice)
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By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 31, 2010

Several years ago, Justice Department lawyer Edwin S. Kneedler argued his 100th case before the U.S. Supreme Court, a benchmark shared by fewer than 10 attorneys in U.S. history.

In a rare departure from court routine, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. congratulated Kneedler from the bench. Kneedler quietly thanked him, said he was honored and walked away, according to lawyers who were there.

Now, Kneedler is bringing the same subdued style to a case that has attracted loud political voices from all sides: the Obama administration's lawsuit over Arizona's new immigration law. As the government's lead attorney, the deputy solicitor general must fight a law that President Obama has strongly condemned while not alienating Arizonans who fervently support it, all in the context of a national struggle over the divisive issue of immigration.

Kneedler has won the first battle: A federal judge in Arizona this week granted his request for a preliminary injunction blocking the most controversial portions of the law, which allows police to question those they suspect of being illegal immigrants. Arizona has appealed, and on Friday night an appellate court set arguments for November, rejecting a state request for an expedited hearing.

Friends and former colleagues of Kneedler, who declined to comment Friday, have described him as the quintessential government lawyer, a 35-year Justice Department veteran with an encyclopedic memory. He is known for burying his head in legal papers, documents that he transports in a weathered black satchel from his Washington home to his office.

Kneedler, 64, has been in the solicitor general's office, the government's advocate before the Supreme Court, since the Carter administration. He is no stranger to politically charged cases: More than a decade ago, he argued the government's position on whether young Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez should be sent home to his father, and he worked on briefs about whether Paula Jones's sexual harassment case against President Bill Clinton should proceed with Clinton in office.

In recent years, Kneedler has been involved in other legal controversies, including the question of where terror suspects should be tried and whether white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., were unfairly denied promotions because of their race -- an issue in last year's confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Kneedler is widely described as apolitical. His first government boss, when he joined the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel in 1975, was Antonin Scalia, the future conservative Supreme Court justice.

In the insular world of Washington Supreme Court advocates, few are willing to criticize colleagues. But former deputy solicitor general Lawrence G. Wallace, who helped hire Kneedler into the solicitor general's office in 1979, said Kneedler did make some enemies in the government over the years.

Wallace said Kneedler did not hesitate to argue with high-level political appointees from across the government who were trying to force a particular legal outcome.

"He was sometimes regarded as an obstacle by people who were trying to accomplish certain policy objectives that the law would not support," Wallace said. "Neither of us were always popular with some people in some administrations."

Some lawyers said Kneedler's apolitical reputation made him a savvy choice for the high-profile Arizona immigration case, even though it is unusual for a top official in the solicitor general's office to argue before a U.S. district judge. Kneedler is the senior career deputy -- there are four deputies in all -- and he served as acting solicitor general for several months in 2009 before Elena Kagan was confirmed as solicitor general.

"The Justice Department wanted to show they were taking this case incredibly seriously, but didn't want to send Obama's guy," said Tom Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who founded the Scotusblog Web site. "I've never seen any hint of politics in Kneedler. There really isn't a more respected advocate in the Supreme Court bar.''

At this week's hearing in Phoenix before U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton, Kneedler shook hands and chatted with Arizona's lead attorney, John J. Bouma. He then fielded pointed questions from Bolton, never raising his voice and consistently holding to his argument that the Arizona law intrudes on federal immigration enforcement.

"He's tremendous on his feet during oral argument," said Patricia A. Millett, a Washington lawyer who worked with Kneedler in the solicitor general's office for 11 years. She described Kneedler as "an incredibly hard worker" who often stays at his Justice Department office into the night and works weekends.

Kneedler, a University of Virginia Law School graduate, is married with two daughters. Unlike many colleagues who left public service to make more money in private practice, friends said he stayed because he loves his job.

That longevity means Kneedler has now argued 109 cases before the Supreme Court, 32 more than any other active lawyer, according to the court clerk's office. Wallace, who holds the 20th-century record with 157, said he is not worried about Kneedler one day eclipsing his mark.

"Records are made to be broken," said Wallace, who retired in 2003. "Ed is an extraordinary lawyer.''


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