Although not immediately obvious, there is a connection between skills needed to decipher Geniza fragments and other medieval Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts and those needed to navigate the complex currents of federal habeas corpus.
Ohio Solicitor General Alexandra Schimmer has done both, melding a somewhat offbeat undergraduate major with a passion for appellate law. On Oct. 9, she makes her first U.S. Supreme Court argument in Tibbals v. Carter, one of two cases this term in which the justices will decide whether death-sentenced prisoners have a right to competence in federal habeas proceedings and whether federal courts may grant indefinite stays of those proceedings when a prisoner is incompetent.
Schimmer studied Arabic and Islamic history at Princeton University and, after graduation, spent a year in England as a Fulbright fellow, working with a collection of medieval Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts housed at the Cambridge University Library. However, she rejected a life in academia for a life in the law.
“It was really just a normal tug that a lot of people who have a strong academic interest feel,” she said. “In which world do you want to act? I think being interested in contemporary issues and not wanting to be involved in them in an academic style led me to law school.”
After graduating from Yale Law School and clerking for two federal judges, she joined the Columbus, Ohio, office of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, as an associate focusing on complex litigation and appeals. After nearly five years with the firm, she found an offer to join the Ohio office of attorney general in 2009 too difficult to resist. In 2011, she succeeded Ben Mizer. The office’s first solicitor general was Richard Cordray, now head of the new federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Appellate law, she said, “demands you go both broad and deep at the same time. I think it’s the last refuge of generalists. If you like a variety of issues and like thinking broadly about issues, doing appellate work is a great place to be. As much as I love the substance and variety of subjects, I love the process of being an appellate lawyer for the state.”
The process, she explained, involves helping to decide, one case at a time, what the interests of Ohio are with respect to hundreds of different cases in federal and state courts. “Should we file an appeal? What arguments should we make? The goal in every case is to speak with a voice that best represents the interests of the state,” she said. “That’s a challenging task. I think the way you meet that challenge is through process. To make the decision, I’m collaborating with a diverse array of lawyers for agencies, with my colleagues in other sections of the office — it’s an amazing process.”
In her office, she added, lawyers always wear the hat of being some other government entity’s lawyer. “It’s like whack-a-ball — how do you isolate the argument you are going to make that represents zealously the interest of client and advocates the position that fits well with your obligations to other government clients and the people of Ohio?”
Schimmer heads a seven, sometimes eight, lawyer office. “We’re not the office it used to be when Rich Cordray started off. It was just Rich,” she recalled. “He was a one-man band. Even with seven or eight attorneys, it’s a pretty lean machine for the volume of work we do.” The work runs the gamut of federal and state constitutional, statutory and criminal issues.
Oral argument, she admitted, was the aspect of appellate law that did not come most naturally to her. “People who know me would say, ‘You became an appellate lawyer because you like to sit and write and research,’ she said. “I have come to like argument a lot. Initially I was very nervous, but at least in this job I have now, it’s not very hard to be passionate about what you do. What I’ve always admired about great advocates is their earnestness of manner and being so learned in their cases. That is coming from an inner source of tremendous passion and preparation. I enjoy the intensity of the preparation. I think and hope then my delivery is a reflection of that.”
In preparation for the Supreme Court, Schimmer has done moot courts with colleagues and will do two others, one with the National Association of Attorneys General and another with Georgetown University Law Center’s Supreme Court clinic. She also does “a lot of intense isolated study” and conversations with colleagues who are familiar with and strangers to the case.
“I do a lot of talking out loud to myself,” she added. “You’d be surprised how different it is to vocalize your arguments than it is to write them down or keep them suspended in your head. I benefit from talking out loud everywhere, from filling the dishwasher to driving the car,” she chuckled.
And although she represents the state against the prisoner in the high court, Schimmer brings to the case a special understanding of the difficulty raised by competency issues in the criminal justice system. In private practice, she was honored by the city bar association for her “exceptional pro bono service” in support of the right to counsel for indigent defendants.
“I have a strong appreciation for all sides of this issue,” she said.
Marcia Coyle can be contacted at email@example.com.