WASHINGTON — Not that long ago, Paul Clement would regularly stand before Supreme Court and defend even the most aggressive uses of federal power, making his case without written notes and parrying questions with an easy banter.
Now, he’s arguing against it. In three cases the justices will take up this week, the 45-year-old law school acquaintance of President Barack Obama will be trying to sink Obama’s health care overhaul.
He was President George W. Bush’s top Supreme Court lawyer, the solicitor general, the last government job on his impeccable conservative resume. He was a law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia, then worked for John Ashcroft, both when Ashcroft was a senator and attorney general.
If a Republican wins the White House, expect to find Clement among the top potential Supreme Court nominees, said Curt Levey, who heads the conservative Committee for Justice. “It’s unimaginable that any Republican president wouldn’t have him on their short list.”
Clement “has become the leading advocate for the most deeply conservative causes in the law. That is a reputation he has worked hard to earn,” said David Frederick, a Supreme Court lawyer who often represents consumers.
Clement is scheduled to argue seven cases at the high court this term, roughly 10 percent of the total and a staggering figure for a lawyer in private practice. Supreme Court lawyer Thomas Goldstein jokingly introduced Clement at a recent event as having “the distinction of arguing every case in the Supreme Court this term, or nearly so.”
Born and reared in Cedarburg, Wis., Clement was a year behind Obama at Harvard Law School and worked under him on the Harvard Law Review. He was the youngest solicitor general, at 38, in 115 years.
His unassuming, buttoned-down image provides little hint of his fondness for alternative rock bands he sometimes sees at Washington’s 9:30 Club. He lives in suburban Virginia with his wife and three sons.
He has maintained a heavy workload despite an upheaval in his professional life that took him from 800-lawyer King & Spalding to tiny Bancroft LLC.
King & Spalding spent a reported $5 million to lure Clement after he left government in 2008. (Clement won’t confirm the figure). And he easily attracted deep-pocketed clients, including National Football League owners in their dispute with players.
But his representation of House Republicans in support of the Defense of Marriage Act prompted an internal struggle at the firm. King & Spalding eventually withdrew from the case, leaving Clement in the uncomfortable position of having to quit his clients or the firm. He chose the latter, which drew criticism from some gay rights groups but praise from lawyers across the political spectrum, including Justice Elena Kagan.
Clement says the experience bolstered his view that he would not choose clients out of fear of taking on unpopular causes. “It seems like a formula for a really uninteresting legal practice,” he said.
Despite his Republican ties, Clement insists that when he stands before any court, “you have to really buy into the notion that positions are taken on behalf of a client. They’re not your positions.”
He has been on the liberal side sometimes — arguing for California prison inmates seeking better health care and seeking higher fees for lawyers who won changes in Georgia’s foster care program.
Still, when he left King & Spalding, he, along with many of his clients, ended up at Bancroft, run by Harvard law classmate Viet Dinh.
The 13-lawyer firm is heavy with former Bush administration officials, including Dinh, and law clerks to Chief Justice John Roberts.