WASHINGTON (AP) — Paul Clement used to argue for the federal government’s power until he started arguing against it.
But he’s no flip-flopping political candidate; he’s a lawyer. Changes like this are part of his job.
Clement is playing a key role in three politically charged Supreme Court cases in which Republican-led states object to Obama administration policies or federal laws on health care, immigration and redrawing political boundaries.
In the biggest of those, the 45-year-old law school acquaintance of President Barack Obama will be trying to sink Obama’s health care overhaul.
Not that long ago, Clement would regularly stand before the justices and defend even the most aggressive uses of federal power, making his case without written notes and parrying questions with an easy banter.
He argued for the Bush administration’s policy on detaining suspected terrorists, a federal law outlawing a medical procedure called “partial-birth abortion” by opponents, the McCain-Feingold law aimed at limiting the influence of money in politics and a federal ban on the use of marijuana for medical purposes.
Clement 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.”
His recent run of cases hasn’t hurt his chances.
“There’s no doubt that Paul 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% 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.”
The last of those will be a defense of Arizona’s immigration law in the face of a challenge from the White House.
He already scored at least a partial victory when the court threw out interim Texas electoral maps that were drawn by federal judges and opposed by the Republicans Clement represented.
But the centerpiece of Clement’s work, and of the high court term, is the election-year fight over the law that is intended to extend health care coverage to more than 30 million people. Clement will carry the bulk of the argument among several attorneys with clients opposing the law.