Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. Credit: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ

As the Trump White House assembles a team of lawyers to coordinate its U.S. Supreme Court nomination effort, staffers on the Senate side are girding for the summer’s confirmation fight by bringing on an outside lawyer.

The committee is searching for a lawyer for a temporary paid position that will end “after the Senate confirmation vote,” according to a top aide to Senate Judiciary chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley. That lawyer will be tasked with “assisting chairman Chuck Grassley and his team with the confirmation effort for” Justice Anthony Kennedy’s replacement on the Supreme Court. Kennedy announced his retirement in June.

The job opening comes as little surprise for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has hired special counsel for Supreme Court nomination battles of the past. Beth Williams, the former Kirkland & Ellis partner who now heads the U.S. Department of Justice office charged with vetting President Donald Trump’s court picks, served as special counsel between 2005 and 2006.

Williams supported the committee on the confirmations of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito’s successful nominations, as well as former President George W. Bush White House lawyer Harriet Miers’ ultimately withdrawn bid.

Another alumna to have assumed the coveted role: Justice Elena Kagan, who worked in the summer of 1993 for then-Sen. Joe Biden. Kagan helped guide the nomination of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But the special counsel hiring is only one sliver of a broader effort to beef up resources and restructure teams—in part to meet the president’s self-imposed July 9 deadline for his nomination announcement and prepare for the political showdown on the confirmation.

As the president has interviewed candidates to replace Kennedy’s seat—winnowing his list to a reported four front-runners—his executive staff has reorganized ranks and rededicated resources to keep up with the president’s deadline.

White House counsel Donald McGahn. Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM.

White House counsel Donald McGahn, the former Jones Day lawyer who oversaw the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch, is the president’s lead on the Supreme Court vacancy. McGahn, with his close friend Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, authored the list of Supreme Court short-listers from which Trump said he will pick a nominee.

Leo, who is on leave from the Federalist Society, will still work closely with the White House staff, and organize outside efforts on behalf of the pick, according to a source close to the process.

The White House announced on Monday two new communication roles for the nomination. Raj Shah “will oversee communications, strategy and messaging coordination with Capitol Hill allies” full time, and Justin Clark, a former partner at Connecticut-based firm Davis, Clark & Bonafonte, will oversee outreach with outside groups and constituencies.

McGahn, as the White House’s chief lawyer, is also at the apex of a team of lawyers that has cut its teeth on vetting and putting forth nominations for the lower courts. The Senate has confirmed 42 trial and appellate nominees during the Trump administration. Trump set a record for the most circuit nominees confirmed in any president’s first term.

The White House declined to comment on staffing for the current Supreme Court vacancy.

The White House team is likely being aided by Justice Department lawyers from the Office of Legal Policy, headed by Williams, the former Kirkland partner. The Justice Department declined to comment on personnel matters.

“Teams of attorneys from the White House counsel’s office and Department of Justice are working to ensure the president has all the information he needs to choose his nominee,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement Monday.

Altogether, the effort is a dash to meet a tight deadline, but one that’s well worth it for the White House counsel who has made reshaping the federal judiciary part of his mission.

McGahn “has placed a premium on judicial selections and has played an active role in the process, and I’m glad he has,” said John Malcolm, a vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation who has contributed names to Trump’s shortlist of nominees.

Before Kennedy’s retirement announcement, McGahn had considered his future plans at the White House, according to a lawyer familiar with the process. But he has stayed onboard, in part because of the possibility of a high court opening.

“If he was thinking of leaving this summer, he’s not thinking about it now,” Malcolm said.

 

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