Edwards v. Dellinger: Gossip Over The Next AG


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Since Jonathan has waded into the gossip mill over the future attorney general, I thought I’d chime in with some other, equally unsourced gossip along those lines. With rumors flying that Obama would pick John Edwards as his AG, conventional wisdom among liberal lawyers in the know is that Hillary Clinton would tap former acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger III for the post.

Personally, I see this as far more plausible than Obama selecting Edwards, despite what Bob Novak says. After all, Edwards has never been a prosecutor, which is a basic pre-req for anyone hoping to get confirmed by the Senate. Also, the AGs job is an administrative position. Edwards is, despite his recent transformation, a plaintiffs lawyer, and good plaintiffs lawyers tend to suck big time at desk jobs. The things that make them good in a courtroom—willingness to take big risks and an unwillingness to compromise—often make them terrible at running things. (See A Civil Action.)

Running the Justice Department not only involves setting policy and overseeing budgets, but it requires managing lots of people. Most good trial lawyers are constitutionally incapable of managing large work forces. They tend to practice law out of very small offices (often they are one-man shops). Bigger plaintiffs’ firms are are notorious for splitting up in ugly, public brawls, usually over money. And frankly, plaintiffs lawyers who work on contingency fees tend to be alpha-male entrepreneurs who just don’t play well with others. Edwards’ public face on the campaign trail obscures some of his history as a pretty cut-throat lawyer.

Dellinger, on the other hand, has a long resume that includes a stint at the Justice Department as an assistant AG in the Clinton administration. He is also wildly popular among DLC types and just about anyone else who’s ever met him, as he is reportedly a very, very nice person. He gets invited to be on panels, boards, and committees and frequently appears other polite legal venues like law reviews. In short, he knows how to play well with others.

Undoubtedly, one of Dellinger’s many selling points for Clinton is also that he doesn’t scare business the way Edwards does. Dellinger has worked for some major corporate clients, including Exxon. Dellinger recently helped the oil giant overturn a multi-billion-dollar punitive damage award in Alabama and he’s currently working to help the company overturn the punitive damage award in the Exxon Valdez case, which has made its way to the Supreme Court.

This sort of appellate work has earned Dellinger goodwill in the business community, but it’s also one reason many liberal lawyers supporting other candidates, off the record, are rooting for Obama. They are troubled that Clinton would tap Dellinger to run Justice. After all, true believers don’t work for Exxon.

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