President Barack Obama in his inaugural address Tuesday rejected what he called a "false choice" between "our safety and our ideals," signaling a change of course on the interplay between national security and individual rights.
Obama's 21-minute speech only nicked the subject of law, but his words foreshadowed an end to some of the most controversial policies of the Bush administration, particularly those related to the treatment of terrorism suspects.
"Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations," Obama said, addressing a crowd of hundreds of thousands sprawled along the National Mall. "Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake."
Obama has sent strong signals of his intent to break from Bush administration policies with his personnel decisions. Most recently, he appointed Georgetown University law professor Neal Katyal as principal deputy solicitor general. Katyal successfully argued the landmark detainee rights case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which the Supreme Court said that the Bush administration's military commissions for trying suspected terrorists violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Conventions. Katyal has been a leading advocate for detainees' rights and a critic of the harsh interrogation methods used by the government in detainee interrogations.
Katyal began work Tuesday. Obama's pick for solicitor general, Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan, is awaiting her confirmation hearings. In the meantime, veteran career Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler is running the office in an acting capacity.
Deputy Attorney General Mark Filip, the Justice Department's No. 2 official, took over as acting attorney general at 12:01 p.m. Tuesday, relieving Michael Mukasey, who arrived in Washington 14 months ago and was handed the task of restoring public confidence in an agency tainted by the influence of politics. Filip's reign should be short-lived. The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on Attorney General nominee Eric Holder Jr. on Wednesday. Legislative aides and lawyers working on his nomination expect him to win confirmation easily.
Obama's address, which drew heavily on themes of personal responsibility, public service and the resiliency of the nation, was characteristically seamless. His oath, however, was not.
When Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., apparently working without notes, started prompting Obama with the words to the oath, Obama jumped in a shade too early, knocking Roberts off stride. They started over, but then Roberts misspoke, placing the word "faithfully" out of sequence. Obama started to respond, but he paused as if waiting for Roberts to say the words correctly -- or at least say them again.
The gaffe was surprising, considering Roberts' reputation as an appellate advocate. He was widely considered one of the smoothest impromptu speakers of the lot, and he would prepare for argument by writing questions he anticipated from the justices on index cards. He would even shuffle the cards so he would be ready for any unexpected sequence.
Lawyers, politicians of various stripes and stature, distinguished scholars, artists, actors, Don King and millions of others braved the cold Tuesday to cadge a piece of history. Those firms that were lucky enough to have a base of operations on the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route capitalized on their locations and kicked up their heels a bit as the day wore on.
Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, which has an office at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, went all out for its party. Opting for the theme "A Journey Through Presidential History," the firm decorated seven floors of its office, each floor marking a different era in presidential history. Richard Murphy, Sutherland's Washington partner in charge, says this year's celebration is the biggest the firm has ever thrown. Fifty-seven lawyers and staff members slept on air mattresses in the office last night to avoid getting caught up in the mass of people who descended upon the city.
Murphy arrived at the office at 6:10 a.m., and guests were already making their way in to prepare for the festivities. "This is a historic event. We have clients and lawyers here from all over the country. ... There's a sense, I think, of people coming together," says Mark Wasserman, Sutherland's firmwide managing partner who is based out of Atlanta.
A little farther down Pennsylvania Avenue, Holland & Knight camped out at Chef Geoff for a more relaxed party. The restaurant served casual snack foods such as mini hot dogs, spring rolls and hot chocolate. People even wore sweats.
Getting to the party, however, was less than relaxing for some of those who braved the public transportation system. Partner Steven Nesmith says it took a half hour for his family to get a spot on the Metro, and by the time they made it, the train was so crowded that his wife felt faint. But he says it was important enough to suffer through the inconvenience. "This is really for my children," says the father of two.
Even before his speech was finished, Obama's team was taking its place inside the White House. According to various news accounts, Gregory Craig, the Williams & Connolly partner-turned-White House counsel, headed to the office along with some 20 other Obama administration officials even before the new president had completed his inaugural address.
Before Obama was sworn in, Vice President Joe Biden was administered his oath by a hale-looking Justice John Paul Stevens, who braved below-freezing temperatures to swear in Biden.
Tuesday was a "great, great day," says Ron Klain, a former partner at O'Melveny & Myers who is now Biden's chief of staff. He played a similar role for Vice President Al Gore and held top positions in Gore's 2000 presidential campaign. Klain was famously portrayed by Kevin Spacey in the HBO movie "Recount."
"Just eight years ago, in a nadir for our system, we saw a president put in office by a highly dubious Supreme Court decision, reversing a popular vote for his opponent," Klain says. "And now? After a record number of people engaged in record levels of political activism to generate a record number of votes for Barack Obama, today we have record crowds in Washington to bear witness to a historic renewal of our democracy."
Incisive Media Supreme Court Correspondent Tony Mauro; reporters David Ingram, Marisa McQuilken and Jordan Weissmann; and editorial assistant Jeff Jeffrey contributed to this article.