An intense two-week period begins today for the Supreme Court, for the Solicitor General's Office and especially for Austin, Texas, lawyer Gregory Coleman.
It's the final argument cycle of the current term, stocked with cases that could define the Roberts Court anew, on issues ranging from search and seizure to Iraqi immunity, affirmative action to voting rights. Parties include a swashbuckling CBS newsman, a middle school student accused of possessing ibuprofen, and a group of white New Haven, Conn., firefighters.
Solicitor General Elena Kagan won't be arguing, but most of the lawyers in her office will, appearing in nine out of the 10 cases scheduled. Two former solicitors general -- Kenneth Starr and Seth Waxman -- will argue. In another case the parties fought over which lawyer should argue, so they hired a new lawyer for the job less than two weeks ago.
And Coleman, a former Texas solicitor general and Clarence Thomas clerk who is building a significant Supreme Court practice from Austin, will appear for the conservative side in the highest-profile cases of the next two weeks, on affirmative action and voting rights.
"The Court is going out with a bang, not a whimper," says Steve Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is involved in four of the cases set for argument. "The next two weeks have the potential to turn a fairly quiet term into a much more important one."
April wasn't supposed to be so busy. Last June, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. said he wanted to front-load the Court's argument docket in the fall, so that justices could avoid the traditional opinion-writing crunch in May and June before their summer recess. There was even talk of canceling some argument days in April.
The Court has, in fact, decided more of its earlier cases going into April than in recent terms, giving the justices somewhat more breathing space this spring, according to the Daily Writ blog, which covers legal affairs. The Court has issued 40 opinions so far.
But that still leaves 39 cases to decide between now and the end of June. A rush of newer petitions that caught the fancy of the justices and their clerks in January has made a hash of the plan for an easier spring. April's argument calendar is loaded with complex disputes. "Even the justices can't control when cert petitions are filed," the ACLU's Shapiro says.
An ACLU attorney will argue on behalf of Arizona student Savanna Redding Tuesday in Safford Unified School District #1 v. Redding that she was improperly strip-searched, "naked and humiliated," based on a vague suspicion that she had ibuprofen, a common pain reliever, on her person. "We hope the Court will say you need more suspicion to conduct a strip-search than to look in a student's backpack," Shapiro says.
The other April cases that have gotten the most attention so far are the voting rights case Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, set for April 29, and Ricci v. DeStefano, a reverse discrimination case that could impact affirmative action in public employment. It will be argued April 22.
Both are being argued by Coleman, head of the appellate practice at Yetter, Warden & Coleman in Austin. Coleman is a soft-spoken advocate who will be arguing his seventh and eighth cases before the justices. R. Ted Cruz, another former Texas SG who heads appellate practice at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, says Coleman presents arguments with "a quiet understatement." He adds, "To be arguing two of the biggest cases of the term, back-to-back, is a testament to Greg's skill."
It was no surprise that Coleman would represent the Austin utility district in its potentially landmark challenge to the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Coleman helped recruit the district to make the challenge, just days after a bill extending the act in 2006 was signed into law. Coleman asserts it is unconstitutional to require election districts in areas covered by the law, originally passed in 1965, to seek Justice Department approval before changing voting procedures.
"In the past 44 years, nearly every facet of voting rights has changed in America," Coleman wrote in his brief. "The country has its first African-American president."
But the ACLU's Shapiro says Barack Obama's election last November should not obscure the fact that discrimination in voting practices continues -- something Congress documented when it renewed the law in 2006.
Coleman's path to representing white New Haven firefighters was less obvious. The firefighters claim they were victims of reverse race discrimination because, when a routine promotion exam produced results that would not have advanced any African-American applicants, the civil service board refused to certify the results. Nobody was promoted.
The firefighters' New Haven attorney, Karen Torre, says "I received lots of offers of assistance" when the case was granted in January. But long before then -- the previous June, in fact -- she had already sought out Coleman based on recommendations and signed him on as counsel if the Court took the case.
"He thought my clients' cause was a just and worthy one, and he was willing to help without compensation," she says. "I have no qualms about his being at the helm in back-to-back cases of such importance. Yes, we have no lives right now while this is going on, but that is what it is all about. If you want to do some good for the country, you do it."
Asked about arguing two high-profile cases in rapid succession, Coleman says, "I'm not sure what to say about that. Both cases are very important to the clients, and we're going to do everything we can to give adequate representation."
GOLDSTEIN'S FAST BREAK
Former SG Starr, now dean of Pepperdine University School of Law, will argue for the Arizona school superintendent in Horne v. Flores, a dispute over federal rules for educating English language learners in public schools. And former SG Seth Waxman of Waxman of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr is representing a group of financial institutions in Cuomo v. Clearing House Association, which asks whether federal powers over national banks trump New York state's efforts to investigate race discrimination in lending.
The coming argument cycle has also made April a busy month for Thomas Goldstein of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. He'll be arguing today in the consolidated cases Republic of Iraq v. Beaty and Republic of Iraq v. Simon, less than two weeks after being hired to handle the case.
At issue is whether Iraq regained sovereign immunity from lawsuits claiming torture and human right abuses when Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003. Two groups of litigants -- one including well-known CBS News reporter Bob Simon -- had earlier lawsuits pending from abuses suffered during Hussein's reign. Iraqi soldiers kidnapped and beat Simon and CBS cameraman Roberto Alvarez in 1991 along with American prisoners from the Persian Gulf War.
The two groups of victims sought divided argument time, but the high court on April 3 denied the request. When that happened, the parties could not reach "a unanimous decision" on who should argue, according to Simon's lawyer, Steve Fennell, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, D.C., and they hired Goldstein. Andrew Hall of Miami's Hall, Lamb and Hall, who represented the other group of plaintiffs, put it more bluntly. "We couldn't agree on which one of us would argue, and Mr. Fennell wouldn't even agree to a coin toss, which is rather bizarre." Hall added, "Part of what occurs with lawyering in a case like this is that you believe that only you can do it well."