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Walter Dellinger III served as acting U.S. solicitor general for only one term of the Supreme Court — and he made the most of it, arguing an extraordinary nine cases in the 1996-97 term. Dellinger, 63, built upon his high-visibility work in that term of the Court — as well as his decades of teaching constitutional law at Duke University School of Law — when he was named head of the appellate practice at O’Melveny & Myers in 1998. Among Dellinger’s key cases as President Bill Clinton’s acting solicitor general were Agostini v. Felton, in which a 5-4 Supreme Court held that remedial education provided by public school teachers to students in parochial schools does not violate the First Amendment, and Washington v. Glucksberg, in which a plurality of the Court accepted Dellinger’s argument that there is a liberty interest in physician-assisted suicide, but that a state can still prohibit it. At O’Melveny, Dellinger argued and won another 5-4 case in March 2003 — Brown v. Legal Foundation of Washington, in which the Court turned aside a major challenge to the use of Interest on Lawyer Trust Account(IOLTA) money to fund legal services for the poor. All told, Dellinger has argued 17 times before the high court. Dellinger also successfully persuaded the Supreme Court of Alabama to overturn a $3.5 billion punitive damages verdict against the ExxonMobil Corp. in 2003, as well as helping the Humana Corp. overturn a sizable jury verdict in a Florida state court in 2001. And Martha Stewart’s lawyers recently added him to their appellate team in their attempts to set aside Stewart’s convictions in federal court in New York. Dellinger, a North Carolina native who was plucked from Duke to become assistant attorney general for legal counsel in the Clinton administration, returned to the North Carolina school after his term as acting solicitor general. He was never nominated as the permanent SG. Speculation at the time was that the administration wanted to avoid a drawn-out confirmation fight mustered by Senate conservatives by reason of Dellinger’s liberal views. Dellinger continues to teach at Duke, commuting between Durham, N.C., and O’Melveny’s D.C. office. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. “He was very engaging and very persuasive [in the Florida case],” says Kathy Pellegrino, vice president and associate legal counsel at Humana in Louisville. “He has a very creative and fertile imagination and a fine sense of humor.” Jim Mercer, special counsel at WebMD, says his company called on Dellinger in 2002 after being hit by an injunction in U.S. District Court in North Carolina that, the company thought, “would have invalidated the privacy laws of all 50 states.” The case involved a business partner of WebMD that claimed to have a contractual right to use information from health insurance claims that WebMD regarded as sensitive patient information. Dellinger briefed the matter to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, but was able to settle it for the company on favorable terms without making an appellate argument, Mercer says. “I admire his ability to take a complex set of facts and provide a definition or theme that simplifies them,” says Mercer. “And he has surrounded himself with so many talented people. It’s not just Walter.” Dellinger agrees. He says there are only three rules for building an appellate practice: “Hire really smart people, be really nice to them, and then sit back and take credit.” Dellinger says the key to a successful appellate argument is to be client centered. “What you want to do is not to focus on the elegance or beauty of the argument, but to put together the pieces you need to give your client the win,” he says. “This is not an oratorical contest or a debating society.”

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