Suppose you were looking for a lawyer to argue a case before the Supreme Court and this résumé crossed your desk:
Started legal career after being hired by Antonin Scalia. Worked on briefs and legal strategy with John G. Roberts Jr. Mentored Samuel A. Alito Jr. Served as acting solicitor general for President Obama and helped prepare Elena Kagan for her first court argument.
Oh, and besides working with four Supreme Court justices, has argued 125 cases there, more than any other practicing lawyer.
The only problem with trying to hire Edwin S. Kneedler is that you can’t. He is exclusive to one client: the government of the United States.
Kneedler has worked at the Justice Department for almost 40 years, the vast majority of that time in the office of the solicitor general, through the administrations of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
He is a career employee — deputy solicitor general — in the office whose job it is to represent the government before the Supreme Court and to advocate for the long-term interests of the government while serving the administration of whoever occupies the White House.
That is where Kneedler is without peer, said the solicitor general, Donald B. Verrilli Jr.
“He’s more than the institutional memory — he’s the institutional conscience,” said Verrilli. “Everything about him embodies the ethos of the office, the principle that the job of the office is to represent the interests of the United States, and that is a nonpartisan obligation.”
One of Verrilli’s Republican predecessors, Paul D. Clement, offers a similar assessment. “Ed is the consummate public servant,” said Clement, as well as a “brilliant lawyer’s lawyer.”
Alito said he knows what to expect when Kneedler is before the court.
“Whenever Ed is on the brief or is arguing, I know — and I won’t speak for my colleagues, but I bet they all feel the same way — we’re getting the best possible argument that can be made for the position that he is defending.”
Such accolades are the reason Kneedler is a finalist for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, recognizing federal employees for their career service. The winners of the awards, given in several categories, will be announced at a gala Sept. 22.
Like Kneedler, Alito’s legal career was based in government service before President George W. Bush nominated him to the Supreme Court in 2006. He served in the solicitor general’s office from 1981 to1985, and he and Kneedler shared adjoining offices. (Perhaps because “I think we were the quietest ones,” Kneedler said.)
Alito said he often worked late at night, leaving just in time to catch the last Metro to Virginia. When he tapped on the door between them, Kneedler was always in his book-filled space. He had worked all day, had gone home for dinner with his family and had returned to the office.
“Whenever I was struggling and wanted to bounce an idea off somebody, he’d always have time to talk to me and was very, very helpful,” Alito said.
In that way, Alito was like many who passed through the solicitor general’s office and sought Kneedler’s guidance.
“He’s the encyclopedia of law,” said Lisa Blatt, a Supreme Court practitioner in private practice who spent much of her career at the solicitor general’s office.
She said Kneedler was so in demand by his colleagues preparing for Supreme Court arguments that he had to hide out to work on his own cases. After they discovered his favorite spot in the law library, Kneedler at times decamped to an Au Bon Pain down the street.
“He had to leave the building to get work done,” she said.
Kneedler, though, describes his legal career as somewhat accidental. He went to Lehigh University intending to be an engineer. He became a math major before settling on economics. After graduation, he went west, a VISTA volunteer working in Oregon.
He saw the ways attorneys were able to improve the lives of migrant workers, and his older brother Lane encouraged him to apply to the University of Virginia Law School, where Lane was on the faculty.
Kneedler returned to the west to clerk for a federal judge and then applied to the Justice Department, thinking he would end up in the environmental law section. Instead, his résumé made its way to Scalia, who was then head of the Office of Legal Counsel. Four years later, he was recommended for a job at the solicitor general’s office.
“It feels like a real privilege,” Kneedler said in an interview. “I feel really fortunate, and I’m also very aware of how fortuity affects people’s life path.”
He has argued and presented a range of issues to the court, including immigration and tribal law. He mentions among his favorites: dense separation of powers cases — such as challenging the constitutionality of legislative vetoes by only one house of Congress — that require a deep dive into history.
“It is so fascinating to me to go back and read all the founding-era documents about the legislative process that we all learned about in grade school,” Kneedler said.
The biggest case he participated in, he said, would be the defense of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which the court mostly upheld on a 5-to-4 opinion by Roberts.
“That was more pressure than any other,” Kneedler said, with the debate “so public and so intense.”
The appeals process dominated a year of his life, and Verrilli said Kneedler’s involvement was crucial to the outcome.
Which is not the same as saying Kneedler favored the act. Both Republicans and Democrats who have worked with Kneedler say they have no idea about his political leanings.
“There are not many people you meet in Washington like Ed,” said Verrilli, a Democrat. “Ed doesn’t filter legal questions through a political prism. I don’t know if he’s a liberal or conservative.”
Clement, a Republican, said he agrees. Kneedler’s concern is that a new administration changes policy the way it should — through rule-making and the legislative process — instead of the “back door of simply changing legal opinions.”
Kneedler said it has not been hard to work for solicitors general of widely divergent ideological views because of the traditions of the office.
“Political philosophy has almost nothing to do with the SG’s job, and in my experience the SGs have put their opinions to one side,” Kneedler said. “I think it’s a great strength of the office that it has that tradition.”
Almost everyone who knows Kneedler is surprised to hear that he is 68, his somewhat boyish face offset by a thick gray beard. “He is kind of ageless; he doesn’t look very much different than when I was in the office,” Alito said. “Maybe his beard is a little bit shorter.”
Many lawyers use experience in the solicitor general’s office to build multimillion-dollar private appellate practices, but Kneedler said the life never appealed to him. He comes from a long line of public servants; when he argues a case before the Supreme Court, he wears cufflinks handed down from his grandfather, a high school civics teacher.
“I love what I do, I like working for the government,” Kneedler said. “I just feel like I found my calling.”
After so many appearances at the Supreme Court, when was the last time he was nervous?
“The last time I argued a case,” he replied. That’s how it should be, he said.
“A certain amount of anxiety, a certain amount of edge of being on the ball and having your answers down — for me at least is driven by some combination of wanting to do the best I can, not wanting to look like an idiot, trying to anticipate the questions and trying to be helpful to the court,” Kneedler said.