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The Lawyers Who May Run America

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It’s the guessing game that has Washington, D.C., buzzing: Which lawyers will be appointed to senior government positions by the next president?

Should Barack Obama win the race for the White House, the following attorneys are favorites to join his administration, according to dozens of interviews with people who know the candidate well. We’ve matched each to the job for which they are most often mentioned.

In the event of a Obama victory, consider it the morning line on the capital’s new establishment.

For a look at the lawyers who may join a McCain administration, click here.


Eric Holder

Currently: Partner, Covington & Burling
Law school: Columbia (1976)

Holder and Obama have been friends since they hit it off at a dinner party in 2004. He is the consummate Washington insider—a familiar fixture in the Clinton administration, but well-known to Republican administrations as well. Best known as a prosecutor, Holder was fresh out of law school when he was assigned to the newly formed public integrity section of the Justice Department. There, he helped prosecute several high-profile defendants, including a judge, a diplomat, an assistant U.S. attorney and a leading organized crime figure.

President Reagan nominated him to a D.C. judgeship and he was later tapped by President Clinton to serve as D.C.’s U.S. attorney. In 1997, Clinton elevated him to the No. 2 job in the Justice Department, and he briefly served as acting attorney general in the Bush administration while nominee John Ashcroft was being confirmed. In 1999, Holder helped convince Republi­cans to scrap independent counsel investigations, successfully arguing before Congress that wrongdoing by public officials can, and should, be handled by the Justice Depart­ment. And should he be tapped as the nation’s chief law enforcement official, Republicans may ask him to revisit that.

Deval Patrick

Currently: Governor of Massachusetts
Law school: Harvard (1982)

Obama and Patrick aren’t just friends. They swim like a two-fish school. Both had fathers who deserted them as youngsters. Both are spellbinding orators and Harvard Law grads. And when Obama appropriated some of Patrick’s lines and manners into his speeches, the shared words and constructions were quickly acknowledged as the collaboration of friends.

Patrick clerked for a judge in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, worked as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and served in the Clinton administration as assistant attorney general in the civil rights division. Patrick has an extensive history of rights-related litigation, but he’s also served as general counsel for two major corporations—Texaco and Coca-Cola. Although he is only halfway through his term as governor, many believe he would be one of Obama’s top choices for AG, and Patrick would be hard-pressed to decline if asked.


Robert Bauer

Currently: Partner, Perkins Coie
Law school: Virginia (1976)

Robert Bauer
Courtesy Perkins

As a partisan regular with a street-fighter’s zeal, Bauer has earned a reputation among some Republicans as the “focus of all evil.” But they weren’t all that crazy about him in the Hillary Clinton campaign either. In March, Bauer crashed a Clinton campaign conference call with reporters, calling into question a charge that Obama workers had violated Texas party rules during post-primary caucuses. An early Obama supporter, Bauer is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post website.

He helped represent Minority Leader Tom Daschle during the Senate impeachment trial of Bill Clinton and was general counsel to Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign. He’s considered one of the nation’s top experts on the intricacies of campaign finance and writes about it regularly on More Soft Money Hard Law, a law blog devoted to campaign finance.

Mark C. Alexander

Currently: Professor, Seton Hall Law School
Law school: Yale (1992)

This former litigator with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher may have a day job as a constitutional scholar, but Alexander’s resumé is rooted in ground-level politics. His father, Clifford Alexander, was secretary of the Army under President Carter.

He is a senior adviser to Obama’s campaign, having served as issues director for Bill Bradley’s 2000 presidential drive.

He’s had teaching gigs as a Fulbright scholar in Spain and as a visiting scholar at Yale Law School. He’s also worked for Democratic Sens. Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum; was general counsel for Newark, N.J., Mayor Corey Booker’s 2006 campaign; and even served a two-year term as an elected official in his hometown, Washington, D.C.


Greg Craig

Currently: Partner, Williams & Connolly
Law school: Yale (1972)

Why not a lawyer for State? To Washington insiders, Craig is smart, smooth, more widely experienced and more level-headed than most. After all, he’s a protégé of quintessential insiders Edward Bennett Williams and Joseph Califano. As senior adviser to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, he was director of policy planning, and served quietly as a go-between on Tibetan issues between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government. As a staffer for Ted Kennedy in the mid-1980s, he played a key role in getting economic sanctions imposed against the apartheid government of South Africa, and he later represented Elián González’s father in the controversial 2000 custody battle.


Richard Danzig

Currently: Adviser, Obama campaign
Law school: Yale (1971)

Having served as secretary of the Navy in the Clinton administration and as a top deputy in the Defense Department, Danzig knows his way around the Pentagon. He was a Rhodes scholar and a clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court for Justice Byron White. While heading the Navy, he was instrumental in developing a personnel system that treated recruits as highly skilled technical workers. In recent years he has become better known for his take on U.S. Middle East policy. Explaining a need to change the U.S. approach to the region at a foreign policy convention, Danzig—who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Oxford—invoked the cultural lessons of Winnie the Pooh and Luke Skywalker: If a tactic is causing too much pain, it’s time to try something else.


Mark Brzezinski

Currently: Partner, McGuireWoods
Law school: Virginia (1991)

Mark Brzezinski
Courtesy McGuire
Woods LLP

Brzezinski served as director of Southeast European affairs for the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. His father, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was national security adviser under Carter. The younger Brzezinski—a Fulbright scholar with a J.D. and a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford—is an expert on Russian and Eurasian affairs in his own right.


Janet Napolitano

Currently: Governor of Arizona
Law School: Virginia (1983)

Napolitano got her first career boost when President Clinton made her U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona. It came after Napolitano helped represent Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Napolitano went on to become Arizona attorney general. As governor of McCain’s home state, Napolitano endorsed Obama a few weeks before the Arizona primary and was rewarded with a featured speech at the Democratic convention.

Though it’s known she would love to become U.S. attorney general, many feel she would bring a different vibe to the Department of Homeland Security. As governor of a border state, she’s pushed for immigration reforms that would include a path to citizenship for those already here illegally; but she was also the first governor to deploy National Guard troops along the Mexico border, an idea later adopted by the Bush administration.


Ronald K. Noble

Currently: Secretary general, Interpol
Law school: Stanford (1982)

Noble, 51, is a career prosecutor and law enforcement officer whose reputation for integrity and forward thinking has vaulted him to one of the top jobs in international law enforcement. After a stint in the Justice Department, he was tapped as assistant Treasury secretary by Bill Clinton in 1993. One of his first tasks was to investigate the disastrous federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Noble’s report blamed structural and procedural problems on his own agencies. A year later, he became the Trea­sury Department’s undersecretary for enforcement, a newly created position responsible for overseeing an array of agencies, including the Secret Service, U.S. Customs and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Before leaving Treasury in 1996, he advocated for a more aggressive approach to money laundering by criminal and terrorist organizations. He was elected in 2000 to run Interpol, becoming the first American to head the international police organization headquartered in Lyon, France. Now in his second term as secretary general, Noble is credited for changing the once deliberate agency into a 24/7 clearinghouse for intelligence and information on terrorist and criminal operations in 186 member nations around the world.


Ron Kirk

Currently: Partner, Vinson & Elkins
Law school: Texas (1979)

When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hosted a reception for Texas Democrat Kirk in 2002 at its D.C. headquarters, GOP leadership in the Senate was livid. At the time, Kirk was giving Republican John Cornyn—the eventual winner—a good run for the seat vacated by Phil Gramm, and they considered the reception an endorsement.

Kirk has made a career of crossing race and party lines, a lesson gleaned from working for Lloyd Bentsen and as Texas secretary of state. Kirk, now 54, was the first black mayor of Dallas, elected in 1995 by a landslide and re-elected four years later by an even greater margin. An early and key adviser for Obama in Texas, Kirk stumped for him in several primary states. As top-level liaison between the White House and the business community, he would bring a broad range of lobbying and coalition-building skills.


Valerie Jarrett

Currently: President & CEO, Habitat Co.
Law School: Michigan (1981)

After his wife, Michelle, Valerie Jarrett is Obama’s closest, most trusted adviser. Though she is black, Jarrett’s background could hardly be more different from Obama’s. She grew up well-off in Chicago, her father an internationally known research physician and her mother an expert in early childhood development. It’s brainpower that makes for the mind-meld between them. Jarrett heads a large apartment development and management concern that also is the court-appointed receiver of Chicago public housing.

If and when Tom Daschle decides he doesn’t want to be chief of staff, she’d be a natural selection there. In 1991, as deputy chief of staff to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, she hired Michelle Robinson, who was already engaged to Obama. Obama respects her knowledge, opinions and experience as a problem solver—she tells it to him straight. And her resumé is a quarry: big rocks, no sand. She’s been chair of the Chicago Transit Board and the Chicago Stock Exchange and a member of the board of directors at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.


Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar

Currently: Professor, Stanford Law School
Law school: Yale (1997)

Courtesy Stanford
Law School

At Stanford, where he received a doctorate in political science to go along with his law degree, Cuéllar’s work focuses on how organizations manage complex problems involving criminal justice, international security and government regulation.

He’s been an adviser to the U.S. Treasury Department and has published papers on subjects as wide-ranging as money laundering and the International Criminal Court.

Cuéllar advises the Obama campaign on many of these issues, and counsels on its efforts to reach Latino voters. He believes that immigration problems are the function of a failed bureaucracy carrying out misguided policies that reflect neither the country’s values nor its needs. And in an Obama administration, he may get the chance to put his philosophy to work.


Kathleen M. Sullivan

Currently: Partner, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges
Law school: Harvard (1981)

Kathleen M. Sullivan
Courtesy Harvard
Law School

Sullivan, 53, was dean of Stanford Law School from 1999 to 2004, and in private practice she’s represented a wide variety of corporate clients and trade associations. But she may be more widely known for her pro bono work in high-profile cases involving civil rights and civil liberties. Considered a constitutional scholar with the ability to find clarity in complex legal concepts, Sullivan has argued four cases before the Supreme Court. She now chairs the national appellate practice group at Quinn Emanuel and is licensed to practice in California, Massachusetts and New York. Sullivan still teaches at Stanford, but she counts as her mentor Harvard professor Laurence Tribe, an avid Obama supporter.


Cass R. Sunstein

Currently: Professor, Harvard Law School
Law school: Harvard (1978)

Cass R. Sunstein
Photo courtesy
University of
Chicago Law School

Obama is known to seek ad­vice on complex subjects from those he believes to be exceptionally smart, rather than those who are just politically con­nect­ed. Sunstein—who has been called a “one-man think tank”—is one of those he consults. Obama knows and trusts Sunstein, with whom he taught at the University of Chicago Law School, and would probably like to clone him for several different jobs. He’s a libertarian and a judicial minimalist whom Obama might be tempted to nominate to a Supreme Court slot. Earlier this year, Obama sought Sunstein’s guidance on warrantless surveillance of international telephone calls.

Sunstein has coined the “nudge” theory in a recent book co-authored with a behavioral economist. The approach involves nudging behavior in certain ways, but leaving options—e.g., automatically enrolling employees in 401(k) savings plans but letting them opt out. Sunstein is no ideologue. He’s supported a number of President Bush’s judicial nominees, including Michael McConnell for the 10th Circuit and John G. Roberts Jr. for chief justice.


Robert M. Sussman

Currently: Retired partner, Latham & Watkins
Law school: Yale (1969)

Before retiring from Latham & Watkins, Sussman represented a wide variety of corporate and trade association clients before government regulatory bodies on issues involving environmental rules and toxic torts. He was deputy administrator of the EPA early in Clinton’s first term and then went on to chair the environmental law practice group at Latham & Watkins. A senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and a member of the board of directors of the Environmental Law Institute, Sussman is a highly regarded expert on the practical aspects of energy policy and climate change.


Charles Ogletree

Currently: Professor, Harvard Law School; director, Criminal Justice Institute
Law school: Harvard (1978)

Ogletree was an adviser to the Black Law Students Association when Obama arrived at Harvard Law, and Obama has long cited him as a mentor. Ogletree’s in­terest in civil rights and racial disparities in the criminal justice system made him a natural choice as Obama’s adviser on black issues in the campaign.

When the NAACP believed it was obligated to support Clarence Thomas in his confirmation battle for the Supreme Court, Ogletree wrote a 30-page report that changed its mind. The 55-year-old professor could be Obama’s choice to head the Justice Department’s civil rights division, perhaps with a close eye on its voting section, which some Democrats believe has been used to suppress minority voting in recent years.


Diane Wood

Currently: Judge, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
Law school: Texas (1975)

Diane Wood
Photo by Lloyd

Judge Wood reminds some of Justice Antonin Scalia; in her opinions, like his, seeds are often planted for future cases. A Clinton appointee to the appeals court, Wood is seen as one of the country’s smartest judges. She’s a liberal who has authored a fair amount of high-profile dissents in the conservative 7th Circuit. In 2002, one such case regarded an Indiana law mandating in-clinic counseling for wom­en seeking abortions. Bucking the majority, Wood wrote that the law was burdensome to women, particularly those in rural areas.

Wood clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun and practiced at Washington, D.C.’s Covington & Burling. She entered academia in 1980, first going to Georgetown Law Center and then to the University of Chicago, where she has been a member of the faculty since 1981. An expert on antitrust litigation, Wood served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the antitrust division of the Justice Department during the early years of the Clinton administration. She joined the 7th Circuit in 1995.

Seth Waxman

Currently: Partner, WilmerHale
Law school: Yale (1977)

Seth Waxman

If Waxman just showed up in robes one day on a bench at First Street and East Capitol, it is possible some old hands wouldn’t do a double-take. Having argued more than 50 cases before the high court, he’s been a fixture there for years. Now 57, Waxman is a former solicitor general. In private practice he’s represented corporate clients and financial institutions. But he’s also argued successfully for basic rights of habeas corpus on behalf of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

After clerking for a federal judge in D.C., Waxman spent 16 years as a litigator with the now-defunct boutique firm of Miller, Cassidy, Larroca & Lewin. He now heads the appellate and Supreme Court practice group at WilmerHale. Justice John Paul Stevens once called Waxman the most brilliant young lawyer he’d ever heard. Should Stevens retire, Waxman just might take his place.

Elena Kagan

Currently: Dean, Harvard Law School
Law school: Harvard (1986)

Elena Kagan
Courtesy Harvard
Law School

In 1999, President Clinton tapped Kagan for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, only to have the nomination blocked by the Senate Judiciary Committee, then controlled by Republicans. But many think an Obama administration wouldn’t hesitate to tap her for a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. As dean, she managed to steer Harvard Law’s first-year curriculum from a 130-year-old case law approach to a more modern problem-solving model, gaining unanimous approval for the plan in a 2006 faculty vote. Kagan, 48, whose academic work focused on First Amendment issues and administrative law, is considered a skilled con­sensus builder. She clerked for Judge Abner Mikva in the D.C. Circuit and Justice Thurgood Marshall in the Supreme Court, and held a series of policy positions in the Clinton administration.

Sonia Sotomayor

Currently: Judge, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
Law school: Yale (1979)

Sonia Sotomayor
Photo by Hispanic
PR Wire

A political centrist, the Bronx-born Sotomayor has been re­garded as a potential high court nominee by several presidents, both Republican and Democrat. Reared by her widowed mother after the death of her father, a tool-and-die worker, she has an attractive life narrative and an even more attractive resumé.

She was an editor of the Yale Law Review, did heavy lifting as a prosecutor under legendary New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, and worked in private practice as an intellectual property litigator.

She was first appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush, then to the appeals court by President Clinton. In 1995, she won the gratitude of baseball fans by issuing an injunction against team owners, setting the stage for the end of the eight-month strike that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

For a look at who may join a McCain administration, click here.


In "The Lawyers Who May Run America," the profile of Robert M. Sussman should have referred to his potential post as administrator of the EPA, not secretary.

The Journal regrets the error.
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