Tom Goldstein at SCOTUSblog explains why he believes Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal will be named the official Solicitor General. I agree with his analysis, but want to extrapolate a bit more: Katyal will be named SG with the specific purpose of priming him for a Supreme Court seat.
Now here comes my march of the “ifs”:
The said seat will not be open for quite some time. Justice Ginsburg, likely the next justice to retire, has no plans to do so for at least another five years. Assuming that Ginsburg remains healthy and that President Obama wins reelection, I also assume that Obama would replace Justice Ginsburg with a woman.
Whether or not Ginsburg proves to be the final retirement under Obama, if Katyal wants to leave the SG’s office before another Court vacancy, then I expect he will be nominated to a federal court of appeal. Doing so will bolster his position as a future SCOTUS nominee, even if Justice Kagan’s nomination straight from the SG’s office has proven federal judgeships unnecessary for a nominee’s confirmation.
If a fourth vacancy comes up before the 2016 election, then Katyal will be the pick. By age and political allegiance, Justice Breyer would be the most likely justice to voluntarily leave the bench during the Obama administration, especially if the country’s in a Republican mood leading into 2016. Doing so would leave room for Katyal, Breyer’s former clerk, to be a reliable successor while also becoming the Court’s first Indian-American justice.
Further, if there is no fourth vacancy under Obama and a Republican becomes president in 2016, Katyal, who is now only 40 years old, will be able to spend eight years building his reputation as a judge and still be young enough for a nomination in 2024. Then again, by 2024, Clarence Thomas would be the oldest justice at 76–hardly retirement age for justices these days.
So instead, Katyal’s placement as SG with an eye towards SCOTUS relies on the biggest “if” of all: the departure of Justice Scalia or Kennedy a) during a Democratic administration and b) before the retirement of Justice Breyer. This comes loaded with all sorts of assumptions, the most reasonable being a Democratic presidency beyond 2016–itself a far from a reasonable assumption. That said, in such an instance, Katyal could be the all-around perfect pick to thwart the full-on thermonuclear confirmation war expected to occur should either Scalia or Kennedy leave their seat–and the Court’s ideological balance–in Democratic hands.
Goldstein’s explanation of Katyal’s credibility from both the left and the right could serve just as well for a SCOTUS nomination as it does for an SG appointment:
Katyal is the Acting Solicitor General, having served as the Principal Deputy Solicitor General throughout the Administration. In the Clinton Administration, he served as National Security Advisor in the Department of Justice. He then was a very well known academic (focusing on national security questions) who also practiced before the Court. He was among a handful of lawyers who formed an advisory body to Barack Obama during the campaign. Katyal’s work before the Court was very highly regarded, including his victory in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. (Another disclosure, I was co-counsel inHamdan, but my role was relatively minor.) Katyal’s reputation has been sterling, both within the Office of Solicitor General and in his interactions with the broader Department of Justice and the government generally. […]
Katyal has broad support in the Republican legal establishment that should smooth the confirmation process. My intuition when I decided to write this piece was actually the opposite: that Katyal’s representation of Hamdan would present an obstacle to his nomination and confirmation. (Verrilli has somewhat similar issues, given that (like me) in private practice he generally appeared on the left-leaning side of cases.) But it turns out that conservatives have recognized that Katyal’s role in Hamdan was entirely appropriate and that he has an exceptionally strong record on national security questions. He not only worked on national security issues for the government prior to Hamdan, but as an academic supported the use of national security courts (with Jack Goldsmith), and he subsequently represented the Obama Administration in successfully arguing against both the challenge to rendition in the Arar case and the claim that habeas corpus rights should be extended to detainees held at Bagram Air Force Base (drawing criticism from the left and the New York Times editorial page). For conservatives rejecting criticism of Katyal’s work in Hamdan, see this piece by the Wall Street Journal editorial page; this piece by Reagan Solicitor General Charles Fried; and these articles quoting Ted Olsonand Richard Epstein.
Barring an actual conservative nominee or an indefinite hold on any nominee until the Republicans take back the White House, Katyal could be the best, most palatable nominee the Republicans could hope for from a Democratic administration.
Of course, a lot happens between election years and Supreme Court vacancies. Nominations themselves are entirely dependent upon political timing. But I would be surprised if the White House hasn’t discussed the very scenarios I outline above when talking about Katyal.