The reports that Ron Klain is poised to become chief of staff to Vice President-elect Joe Biden mean Biden could have one of Washington’s best-connected Democratic lawyers at his side.
Klain joined the investment firm Revolution, based in the District, in 2005 as general counsel. But previously he worked at the highest levels of all three branches of government—as a Supreme Court law clerk, as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee when Biden was chairman, and as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, to name just a few of his many past positions.
His prime seat at the intersection of politics and law was clear by 1993, when Legal Times published a profile of him. From the story:
On the morning of March 19, when Supreme Court Justice Byron White announced his retirement plans, Ronald Klain pulled off the ultimate Washington hat trick. After picking up the resignation letter from the justice for whom he once clerked, Klain took it to the Oval Office, where he conferred with the president he now serves. Later that morning, Klain was on the phone chatting about White’s replacement with another former employer—Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The profile, by Daniel Klaidman, reported that there was a “clamorous chorus of praise” for Klain even then.
Those who have worked with him say that the combination of a nimble legal mind and a well-honed set of instincts for the rough-and-tumble of Washington politics has helped Klain—one of six associate general counsel working under White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum—rocket to a spot among the administration’s most influential lawyers.
There’s also this quote from Biden about Klain’s influence on judicial nominations: “I don’t know if Ron will have any more influence than the White House counsel or the attorney general. But I do know that there’s one end point for judicial selection—and it’s Ron.”
The full Legal Times profile from 1993 after the jump.
April 12, 1993
Ron Klain and the Power to Choose
Precocious Lawyer Emerges as Clinton’s Top Judge-Picker
By Daniel Klaidman
On the morning of March 19, when Supreme Court Justice Byron White announced his retirement plans, Ronald Klain pulled off the ultimate Washington hat trick.
After picking up the resignation letter from the justice for whom he once clerked, Klain took it to the Oval Office, where he conferred with the president he now serves. Later that morning, Klain was on the phone chatting about White’s replacement with another former employer—Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. (D- Del.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The day’s events were at once a startling example of how Klain, at the tender age of 31, easily negotiates all three breeches of government at the highest levels—and a stark indication of the formidable responsibilities he faces in his most challenging role to date: as President Bill Clinton’s designated judge-picker.
The confidence placed in Klain by the president, a Supreme Court justice, and a powerful senator in the space of a mere morning also suggests that he may be better positioned than anyone before him to take on the crucial and often politically explosive world of judicial selection.
“Ron has had the full range of relevant perspectives bearing on judicial nominations,” says Harvard Law School Professor Laurence Tribe, who hired Klain as a research assistant in 1985 when Klain was a Harvard law student. “Among the many appointments that President Clinton has made, this is one that convinces me he knows what he’s doing.”
Tribe is just one voice in a clamorous chorus of praise for Klain. Those who have worked with him say that the combination of a nimble legal mind and a well-honed set of instincts for the rough-and-tumble of Washington politics has helped Klain—one of six associate general counsel working under White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum—rocket to a spot among the administration’s most influential lawyers.
But those familiar with the fierce politics of judicial selection suggest that Klain’s skills will be tested as never before in the coming months, as he helps President Clinton fill nearly 120 federal judicial vacancies and at least one Supreme Court opening.
The stakes are high: Klain has the opportunity to help reverse the conservative course of the federal judiciary charted during 12 years of Republican rule and to help Clinton implement a lasting constitutional legacy.
Liberal activists are eagerly awaiting Klain’s efforts.
“What’s at stake is whether the next generation will enjoy the same protection of rights and liberties that we have been afforded,” says Nan Aron, executive director of the Alliance for Justice, a public-interest coalition active on judicial selection.
Klain declined comment for this article.
The land mines that Klain and his colleagues will have to dodge are everywhere, both within the administration and without.
After years of brutal confirmation fights with the Democrats—from the landmark battle over failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork to the vituperative confirmation brawl over Justice Clarence Thomas—GOP senators are poised for retribution.
“We haven’t forgotten Bork,” warns one GOP staffer for the Senate Judiciary Committee. “There are still a lot of bloodthirsty Republicans on this committee.”
Klain will also have to keep at bay dozens of Democratic senators and legions of liberal interest groups who have been waiting in the desert for 12 long years, anticipating the moment when they could once again have influence in the selection of federal judges.
“The White House is going to have to guard against the dissolution of President Clinton’s nominating and appointing powers, as Democratic senators assert themselves on behalf of friends and other people they know,” predicts Terry Eastland, a resident fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former official in President Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department.
Closer to home, Klain will face bids by other power centers within the administration to seize control of judicial selection. Already, there are signs that the lines of authority for judge picking are far from settled.
For starters, both Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton have taken a personal interest in personnel selection thus far, and the pair—both lawyers—are likely to continue to do so in the judicial arena. At least two other officials with close ties to the president and the first lady could also challenge Klain for influence.
Webster Hubbell, the newly nominated associate attorney general, who served as the Justice Department’s liaison to the White House during the administration’s prolonged search for an attorney general, has told colleagues that he wants to pick judges. Hubbell is himself a former justice on the Arkansas Supreme Court.
And President Clinton is expected to revive the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, which during the Reagan years served as the administration’s primary judicial-screening office. Eleanor Acheson, a friend of Hillary Clinton’s and a partner at Boston’s Ropes & Gray, is widely expected to head that potentially powerful outpost.
Furthermore, tension between the Department of Justice and the White House counsel’s office has long been a feature of the federal judge-picking process. There is no reason to believe that such tension will evaporate under the Clinton regime.
But Klain, who was involved in judicial selection from his perch at the Senate Judiciary Committee, has moved quickly to establish good relations with Attorney General Janet Reno. She, in fact, owes him a debt of gratitude: Klain helped steer her through her Senate confirmation hearings last month.
“Ron is one of the most impressive young lawyers I have met in a long time,” Reno says. “I value his judgment, his knowledge of policy and legal issues.” As for the division of labor in the area of judicial selection, Reno seems confident that the Justice Department and the White House will be equals. “We’re going to work together,” she declares.
Even if that proves true, Klain faces another, especially delicate set of pressures that derive from his close relationship to his former boss, Sen. Biden, whose interests are likely to collide at times with those of President Clinton.
Klain’s ties to Biden could prove a major plus, giving Clinton a solid early-warning system on troublesome nominees and helping to ensure that Biden’s views are heard at the White House. And the ties have certainly been beneficial to Klain; it was Biden who recommended Klain to Clinton for the judge-picking job.
Still, some critics express concern that Klain could have a hard time sorting out his conflicting allegiances. Biden’s role in Klain’s promotion only heightens that unease.
“Obviously, the question for somebody in this kind of position of dual loyalties is whether he works for the president of the United States or Joe Biden,” says Eastland.
Other observers say that, while there are obvious advantages to having such close relations with the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and other members of the panel, there are also potentially dangerous pitfalls.
“Klain’s relationship with Biden is a double-edged sword,” observes a senior Bush Justice Department official who was deeply involved in judicial selection. “On the one hand, it helps Clinton to have that bridge to the committee. But [Klain] will have to watch out that he doesn’t end up representing the Hill’s interests instead of the president’s.”
The Tone of His Career
While the pitched battles of judicial politics may be daunting, Klain has been in training a long time. He has worked in and around politics most of his adult life.
Klain grew up in Indianapolis; his father worked as a building contractor, and his mother was a travel agent. Although politics was not a frequent topic of conversation in his home, it captured Klain from an early age.
Klain’s mother, Sarann Warshawsky, recalls his first moment of political consciousness—when he was barely six years old.
“I came into Ronald’s room early one morning and gently explained to him that Bobby Kennedy had been killed,” she recalls. “He cried. I think that sort of set the tone for his career.”
When he was just 15 and most of his friends were still going to summer camp, Klain traveled to Washington to work as an intern for Sen. Floyd Haskell (D-Colo.).
Back at home at North Central High School, Klain stayed politically active. During his senior year, he was class president and ran a state Senate campaign.
In 1979, Klain returned to Washington as the first in his family to go to college. He attended Georgetown University, where he majored in government—and kept a hand in politics, working for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and his home-state senator, Birch Bayh (D-Ind.).
When Klain graduated from Georgetown in 1983, he deferred entry into Harvard Law School so that he could run the Senate campaign of Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). Although Markey dropped out of the race before the Democratic primary, owing to his inability to raise money, he says he doesn’t regret for a moment entrusting his campaign to the 22-year-old Klain.
“Ron is the political and legal Bo Jackson of our times,” says Markey, referring to the multi-talented athlete. “He has the rarest of all skills because he can both do policy and politics in the first rank of genius.”
Serving the Left
At Harvard, Klain studied under liberal constitutional-law Professor Laurence Tribe and worked as Tribe’s research assistant. One friend of Klain’s says that the experience was an important part of his intellectual formation and marked his first foray into thinking seriously about the politics of judicial selection.
Klain spent most of his time with Tribe working on Tribe’s book God Save This Honorable Court, which argued that the Senate should play a more vigorous role in the selection of federal judges and that senators, through the advise-and-consent process, should seek to preserve ideological balance on the Supreme Court.
The book, which was published in 1985, became a kind of intellectual road map for Democrats as they worked to defeat Robert Bork’s Supreme Court nomination two years later. Many of Klain’s friends and former colleagues say that he wrote large sections of the book, a claim that Tribe disputes.
Still, Klain’s association with Tribe—who is himself often mentioned as a Supreme Court contender—is a source of concern for some conservative activists who revile the Harvard law scholar as the embodiment of runaway judicial activism.
“God Save This Honorable Court was the blueprint for radicalizing the judicial-selection process,” argues Thomas Jipping of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank that recently began monitoring the Clinton administration’s selection of federal judges.
“If Mr. Klain is steeped in that kind of overt attempt to hijack the judicial-selection process for ideological purposes, then we’ve really got a lot to be concerned about,” adds Jipping.
Working With the Right
Conservatives may take comfort in the fact that Klain’s career has not followed a consistently leftward path. In 1987, Justice Byron White offered Klain a two-year clerkship straight out of law school—a special honor, since most Supreme Court clerks serve for a single year and are expected to have clerked at a lower court first.
White has been a faithful member of the conservative wing of the Rehnquist Court. During Klain’s clerkship, conservatives won substantial victories in several critical areas of the law, including the bolstering of police powers vis-à-vis criminal defendants.
But it was in the area of civil rights where the conservative justices made their biggest imprint, cutting back on the sweep of federal anti-discrimination protections. White authored one of the most important cases, Wards Cove Packing Co. v. Atonio (1989), which made it more difficult for workers to prove instances of discrimination. The decision was hailed by conservatives as a blow against quotas. Klain drafted substantial portions of Wards Cove despite having personal reservations about White’s ultimate ruling, according to two sources who clerked at the Supreme Court at the time.
That Klain could move so comfortably from the tutelage of a liberal law professor at Harvard to the chambers of a conservative jurist points up one aspect of Klain’s character that friends say may have helped him rise so quickly and emerge from political brawls with so few scars.
“Ron Klain does not let his emotions or his ideology get in the way of anything he does,” says Paul Cappuccio, a partner in the D.C. office of Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis and a friend and former classmate of Klain’s at both Georgetown and Harvard.
“Ron is the master gamesman,” adds Cappuccio, who clerked at the Supreme Court at the same time as Klain. “You got the sense that as things were going south for the aggressive civil-rights movement, Klain was sitting back calmly saying, ‘This is a political advantage.’ While the civil-rights groups were screaming bloody murder, Ron was realizing that this would lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1991.”
By the time that civil-rights legislation was being fought out in Congress, Klain had left the Supreme Court to become, at age 27, the youngest-ever chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He played a key strategic role in passage of the Civil Rights Act by helping to keep the bill out of the Judiciary Committee, leaving it to the more liberal Labor and Human Resources Committee.
Klain’s ability to broker deals and stay above the fray served him well as Biden’s chief strategist at the Judiciary Committee. He was a leading architect of last year’s omnibus crime bill; although the legislation was ultimately blocked by Senate Republicans, Klain won kudos for assembling a proposal that was palatable to diverse and often opposing interests.
“Ron was able to put together a crime package that law enforcement liked and that civil-liberties groups were not up in arms about,” says Mark Gitenstein, Klain’s predecessor at the committee and now a partner in the D.C. office of Chicago’s Mayer, Brown & Platt. “That’s a pretty impressive feat.”
Armed with such a reputation, Klain was considered attractive merchandise by Washington law offices when he began shopping around for a new job last year. Many of the city’s blue-chip firms bid for him, including Williams & Connolly and Mayer, Brown. In the end, he chose the D.C. office of Los Angeles’ O’Melveny & Myers, because it offered him the right mix of law and politics.
Still, Klain could not resist the siren call of campaigns for long. Even before he began at O’Melveny, Klain had traded in his plush law-firm office for cramped quarters at the Democratic National Committee, joining Clinton’s presidential team.
Klain wore a number of hats during the campaign, ultimately serving as Clinton’s chief adviser on criminal-justice issues and as a debate coach. After the election, Klain worked on the transition team, helping Warren Christopher, now the secretary of state, select members of Clinton’s Cabinet. Taking advantage of his ties to Capitol Hill, Klain vetted prospective Cabinet members’ names before key senators, helping to smooth the way for the nominations.
Some of President Clinton’s early nominations, of course, were none too smooth. Klain got his first real trial by fire as a White House player during corporate lawyer Zoë Baird’s failed bid to become attorney general.
During Baird’s confirmation hearings, Klain, then brand-new to his $90,000-a-year job in the White House counsel’s office, served as a principal intermediary between the White House and Biden. Klain felt that Baird was in trouble from early on and that some in the White House did not appreciate the magnitude of the problem, Biden relates. Shortly before Baird’s nomination exploded publicly amid revelations that she had violated immigration laws and failed to pay Social Security taxes for two domestic workers, Klain was on the phone to Biden, warning about the impending controversy.
“Right after she was nominated, he called me and said, ‘Senator, Zoë Baird is a fine woman. But I have to tell you, there’s a serious political problem, and I don’t think it is fully appreciated by the people around her,”’ recalls Biden.
Klain used his back channel to Biden as the two worked together to try to salvage the nomination. As it became apparent that Baird was hemorrhaging support, Biden threatened to “shut down” the hearings. But Klain persuaded his former boss to allow Baird to continue testifying, so that she could get her side of the story out—and emerge from the draining proceedings with her dignity intact.
Supporters say the Baird episode illustrates Klain’s astute political judgment, as well as his sense of diplomacy.
“Ron had all these conflicting pressures, from Biden, Zoë, and the president,” says one Baird adviser, who requests anonymity. “It was a recipe for an explosion, but Ron emerged without anyone feeling betrayed.”
That skill will be at a premium in the coming months, as Klain sorts through the competing demands inherent in picking judges. He has already been busy quietly lobbying senators to make racial and ethnic diversity a priority when suggesting prospective jurists. How much clout he will ultimately command—and how he will handle it—remains to be seen. But at least one powerful player has already given him a vote of confidence.
“I don’t know if Ron will have any more influence than the White House counsel or the attorney general,” says Sen. Biden. “But I do know that there’s one end point for judicial selection—and it’s Ron.”