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Miguel Estrada found himself in the national spotlight from 2001 to 2003 because of his controversial nomination for a judgeship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The nomination ran into a concerted filibuster in the Senate, and eventually, Estrada chose to ask President George W. Bush to withdraw his name from consideration. But people who follow appellate practice in Washington have known for several years that Estrada, 42, is one of the best around. The most recent case in point: On June 21, in Aetna Health v. Davila, Estrada won for his client, Aetna Inc., a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act bars patients from suing a health maintenance organization in state court for damages resulting from the HMO’s failure to pay for a medical treatment. The case was closely watched in health care and insurance circles and was a high priority for the HMO industry. “We believe strongly in Miguel’s appellate skills,” says Ed Neugebauer, deputy chief legal officer and head of litigation at Aetna. “He is the best writer I have seen in 20 years. And he did a fabulous job of getting the Court to the point that he wanted them to get to.” Estrada has been the chief appellate lawyer for Aetna for the past five years. “We’ll get him involved in our whole inventory of appeals, most of the important legal issues we have,” says Neugebauer. Estrada, a partner at the D.C. office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, follows in the appellate tradition of lawyers like Theodore Olson, the former Gibson, Dunn partner who just announced that he is stepping down from his post as U.S. solicitor general and returning to the firm. Stephanie Tsacoumis, co-partner-in-charge of the D.C. office, says Estrada has “a talent for elegant and persuasive writing, lively oral advocacy skills, strategic flair, wide-ranging appellate experience, a photographic memory, and a social conscience.” Estrada, who co-chairs Gibson, Dunn’s appellate and constitutional law practice group, joined the firm in 1997 after serving five years in the solicitor general’s office. Before that, he was deputy chief of the appellate section in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Estrada clerked for 2nd Circuit Judge Amalya Kearse and then for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He has argued 16 cases at the Supreme Court, including one, Strickler v. Greene, that he argued in 1999 on a pro bono basis for a client on death row. He was also part of the team that presented the case for then-Gov. George W. Bush in the successful Supreme Court appeal of Bush v. Gore in 2000. That work and Estrada’s personal history — he was born in Honduras and came to the United States at age 17 — helped get him noticed in GOP circles. In May 2001, Estrada was among the first judicial picks of the new Bush administration. Estrada was decried by Senate Democrats and liberal activist groups as a “stealth nominee” who was being groomed for the Supreme Court. He was criticized for refusing to specify his views on key judicial and social issues. Steven Witzel, associate general counsel at PricewaterhouseCoopers, has worked with Estrada on several matters. “He’s been working with me on some international litigation involving the laws of Kazakhstan,” Witzel says. “I’m amazed that he worked with the two founders of the Kazakh legal code, and after a couple of days, they were listening to Miguel explain to them what the law of Kazakhstan was.” With Estrada, says Witzel, “you know you are intellectually outclassed, but you are still dealing with someone who is quite easy to work with.” Estrada says part of the essence of appellate advocacy is “to understand that the [Supreme Court] justices are busy and intelligent people. Many of the questions they ask will have yes-or-no answers. You should answer yes or no and then explain. “If you believe that you are there to help the justices, then they will cut you some slack,” Estrada says. Another bit of advice, he adds, is not to specialize in the details of any area of law. An excellent appellate advocate “needs to have the level of perspective that the justices have and to think at the same level of generality that they are at.”

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