Left to right: Chris Michel, Frederick Liu and Michael Huston (Courtesy photo)
Three well-credentialed lawyers from big law firms in Washington are heading to the U.S. Solicitor General’s Office soon, a telling signal that despite Justice Department and Trump administration controversies, the office has no trouble recruiting lawyers from high-paying firms.
Frederick Liu, a partner at Hogan Lovells, Christopher Michel, an associate at Kirkland & Ellis and Michael Huston, an associate at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher will soon become assistants to the solicitor general, filling vacancies less than a month before the U.S. Supreme Court’s fall term begins.
All three are former law clerks to Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. They also clerked for appeals court judges who have been mentioned as potential Supreme Court nominees. Liu worked for Judge Steven Colloton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, Michel clerked for Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Huston clerked for Judge Raymond Kethledge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
Liu and Michel received law degrees from Yale Law School, and Huston was first in his class at the University of Michigan Law School.
“Assistant to the SG is one of the best jobs an appellate lawyer can have. I don’t think that’s changed at all,” said Joseph Palmore of Morrison & Foerster, who left the SG’s Office in 2014 to co-chair the firm’s Supreme Court and appellate practice. A several-year tour of duty as an assistant to the SG can often become a launching pad for a return to law firms as leaders of appellate practices.
Michel and Huston declined comment and Liu did not respond to an interview request.
Former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, who works with Liu at Hogan, said in an email, “Fred is an extraordinarily talented attorney and we are excited he is joining our former associates Morgan Goodspeed and Elizabeth Prelogar in the office. We pride ourselves on training the best new generation of appellate advocates, and know Fred’s upcoming Supreme Court arguments as an assistant will be as good as the one he did with us as an associate.” Liu argued before the high court in the 2015 Eighth Amendment case Kansas v. Carr.
The three new assistants will bring the office to full staffing at the assistant level, with 16 lawyers. But there is a conspicuous vacancy at the top. Noel Francisco, Trump’s nominee to be solicitor general, has not been confirmed.
Francisco was named principal deputy solicitor general soon after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, and was formally nominated to the solicitor general position on March 7. But under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, Francisco could not actually serve as acting SG while awaiting confirmation. So he has been serving as a senior adviser to the associate attorney general while Jeffrey Wall, chosen by Francisco as his principal deputy, serves as acting SG.
The Senate Judiciary Committee sent Francisco’s nomination to the full U.S. Senate in June with an 11-9 vote in his favor. But Francisco was not approved during a flurry of confirmation votes before the Senate went into recess in early August, apparently because of the close committee vote on his nomination—not because any senator placed a hold on his confirmation. The full Senate is likely to confirm Francisco when it returns after Labor Day, and Francisco is expected to be ready to argue a case in the October sitting of the court.
The influx of assistants comes after other departures and hires to and from law firms earlier in the year and two high-profile details to special counsel Robert Mueller’s legal team: Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben and assistant to the solicitor Elizabeth Prelogar. Jeffrey Sandberg, an appellate litigator in the Justice Department’s Civil Division, is filling in for Prelogar at the SG’s Office.
In addition Erica Ross, a Jenner & Block partner, left for the SG’s Office, as did Jonathan Ellis, an associate at Latham & Watkins and another former Roberts clerk. Ross clerked for Justice Elena Kagan.