Colleagues and friends of acting solicitor general Neal Katyal organized a top-tier farewell party at the Justice Department on his last day in office Monday afternoon, featuring no fewer than three Supreme Court justices, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., new SG Donald Verrilli Jr. and White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, among others. Longtime deputy SG Edwin Kneedler, who has argued 113 cases before the Court, was the emcee, praising Katyal as a "terrific advocate" and for his "insistence on candor" with the Court.
"He's really damn smart," Ruemmler said of Katyal, adding that she and Katyal have been close personal friends for 17 years. "We have grown up as lawyers together." Ruemmler read a note of thanks from her boss, President Barack Obama.
Verrilli, whom Katyal introduced to the Court earlier in the day, thanked Katyal for being "an exceptional steward" of the office of solicitor general. Katyal served as principal deputy from the beginning of the Obama administration until last year when he became acting SG as Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court. "The place is in great shape, and that's thanks to you, Neal," said Verrilli.
In her remarks, Kagan sounded especially sorrowful about Katyal's departure from government service. She said it was "one of the honors and privileges of my life" to work with Katyal. "I learned from you how to be a great lawyer." Kagan joked that when she became SG she batted around some ideas for a new deputy in a conversation with Holder, but he kept bringing the discussion back to keeping Katyal on. That was a discussion, she said, that "I was most happy to have lost."
Offering a glimpse into her own time as SG, Kagan said it was "one of the most difficult years in my life," in part because of the confirmation process both for SG and the Supreme Court. "It was a great year, but a hard year," she said. "I could not have had a better friend" than Neal to help her through it. "When it comes to other people's problems, Neal has 100 hours a day" to listen and help, she said.
Justice Stephen Breyer was upbeat, telling the audience that as one of his law clerks 15 years ago, Katyal "helped bring order to the chaos that passes for my office." Still sporting a sling from his broken-collarbone accident a month ago, Breyer said of Katyal, "Stay tuned, ladies and gentlemen. The best is yet to come." Katyal has been talking to law firms about entering private practice while he also teaches at Georgetown University Law Center.
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. spoke next, joking that in praising Katyal, he was "joining justices Kagan and Breyer -- a phrase I haven't had the opportunity to use" very much lately. Roberts called Katyal "one of the finest lawyers who has argued before the Court," and thanked Katyal's family for sacrifices they made during the "388 days and 55 weekends" of his tenure as acting SG.
Roberts' appearance and effusive remarks were a reminder of the collegiality of the tight-knit Supreme Court community. Roberts may not have voted for many of the positions Katyal took. And earlier in the day, in the Arizona campaign finance case, Roberts had squared off with Kagan -- he read the majority and she read from her dissent. But he joined them both in an important celebration for a departing acting SG.
Before Katyal thanked his colleagues, Attorney General Holder wrapped up the event, praising Katyal for serving with "great distinction" in several Justice Department stints. Katyal, he said, has "never failed to answer the call of duty" for government service. "This federal government is not done with him yet."
Photo by Diego Radzinschi