Michael Dreeben served in the Office of the Solicitor General from 1988 until 2019 and has argued over 100 cases before the Supreme Court.
The chance to serve in the Office of the Solicitor General is the professional honor of a lifetime. The privilege of working for and among so many giants of the law — persons of brilliance, decency, dedication and integrity — is unmatched. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to my former colleagues who wrote tributes to my career and to all of the others with whom I served. As great an honor as the writings are, I can’t help but feel that the tributes are at bottom a testament to the institutional strengths of the Solicitor General’s office.
The Solicitor General’s office is a proving ground for legal theories. Nothing so forces an advocate to confront the weaknesses or limits of his or her position as knowing that it will undergo the crucible of public testing in oral argument before the highest court in the land. The questions are fast, frequent and penetrating, and there is nowhere to hide. This is a daunting prospect, but advocates in the Solicitor General’s office do not go through the preparation process alone. Preparing for oral argument is a collective endeavor. Colleagues brainstorm, suggest answers to questions and break the tension with a joke when it is needed. Whether through the formal processes of moot courts or in study-break eureka moments when colleagues bat around ideas, the Solicitor General’s office’s collective ethos of support is an indispensable step to presenting the government’s case at the podium. And that ethos radiates throughout the department — it is found in collaboration with the most far-flung U.S. Attorney’s offices, the litigating components that form the heart and soul of the department and the agencies that the Solicitor General’s office represents.
Within the government, the Solicitor General’s office embodies a commitment to the responsible development of the law. As one of my colleagues once said, while many lawyers view the law as a means to some other end, the lawyers in the Solicitor General’s office are committed to the law as an inherent end. This is not an abstract goal. Law is the underpinning of a just society. It is the way in which society channels disputes over the most strongly held beliefs to produce fair outcomes — and equally important, it is the fruit of a process that allows all relevant voices to be heard and positions to be aired. The Solicitor General’s office is a microcosm of that process within the executive branch. It functions by rigorous adherence to a deliberative process in which attention to long-term government objectives, pursuit of stability and coherence in the law, and respect for the Supreme Court’s unique institutional stature are overarching principles.
And that brings me to the core truth I take from these tributes: The institution of the Solicitor General’s office is a living organism that is much larger than any individual who works there. The values of the office — unwritten and rarely spoken about — mold everyone who works there. This is the power of culture: It captures those who temporarily come to work in an institution and challenges them to meet the standards set by those who have come before. That was certainly true for me: Through informal comments and power of example, I found myself drawn into the office culture and constantly striving to live up to it. The enduring values of the Office of the Solicitor General that these essays reveal are worth pausing to reflect on. Candor to the court, commitment to abiding governmental interests, recognition of the importance of precedent, and firm loyalty to the integrity of the law are essential to the mission of the Solicitor General’s office and the larger Department of Justice. I am proud to have been part of an office that lives and breathes those ideals.
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