Michael Mongan

California’s Solicitor General Takes a Team-Based Approach

As the solicitor general of California, Michael Mongan, JD ’06 (BA ’01), has delivered several critically important arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. He argued against the Trump administration’s attempt to rescind DACA, an immigration policy benefiting people brought to the United States as children; against Republican-led states’ efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act; in defense of a California law allowing labor organizations the right to access agricultural property in unionization drives; and in defense of a state proposition prohibiting the in-state sale of pork products produced in an inhumane manner.

But when California was back at the high court in a case involving another Trump-era immigration policy last year, he delivered something else: breakfast.

Helen Hong, the deputy solicitor general who argued for California in the case—her first-ever before the Supreme Court—had developed a fondness for the blueberry muffins served at the Washington, D.C. hotel where they stayed while preparing their case. But she was often too busy to pick one up, so, most mornings during their 10-day stay, Mongan would leave a muffin outside her room.

“That’s not something you typically hear of a solicitor general doing,” laughs Hong, now the principal deputy solicitor general.

Michael Mongan
Michael Mongan, JD ’06 (BA ’01), solicitor general of California

What Mongan is, according to Hong and others who know him, is the ultimate team player: a highly skilled appellate practitioner who is also eager to support his colleagues in their own big moments.

Edward DuMont, JD ’86, hired Mongan as a deputy solicitor general after DuMont was appointed solicitor general in 2014. The office, under then-Attorney General Kamala Harris, was undergoing a major transition at the time, growing in size and taking a bigger role in cases that previously might have been staffed through appeal by subject-matter experts in other offices within the state’s Department of Justice.

“He stood out for his qualifications, but also because he was modest, humble, diplomatic, and able to get along with people,” DuMont says. “That transition to a new model was not without controversy: ‘Look at this new office, trampling on my territory.’ But pretty soon, I had people calling me saying, ‘I want Mike to work on my cases.’”

Mongan was appointed solicitor general in 2019. A California native who grew up in Sausalito, he says the role combines the legal research and writing he grew to love at Stanford Law School with the kinds of meaty policy issues he first worked on as a college intern for then-Senator Max Baucus, JD ’67 (BA ’64).

“It is just an absolute dream job for me,” Mongan says. “I get to focus on appellate advocacy, work with a team of super smart attorneys, and work on cases that relate to policies I care about in my home state.”

After earning his undergraduate degree in political science from Stanford in 2001, Mongan spent two years working for Baucus, who was serving as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He then enrolled at Stanford Law School to pursue a political career.

“I wasn’t planning to practice law,” he explains. “I was planning to stay in policy and wanted to work on the Hill.”

But, he continues, “I was sort of surprised by how much I loved the craft of deeply researching the law and writing briefs and arguing cases. I realized that, as a lawyer, you can do that work and also be at the intersection of law and policy and politics.”

At SLS, he wrote his student note on the Federal Advisory Committee Act, took civil procedure with the “inimitable” Professor Pamela S. Karlan, and participated in the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.

Peter Morgan, JD ’06, who roomed with Mongan for two years, says, “It’s obvious today that Mike was very clearly one of the star students.”

“But he didn’t wear that on his sleeve,” Morgan continues. “Law school is often full of people for whom it is very important that you know how smart they are. Mike is just the opposite of that.”

After graduating in 2006, Mongan clerked for Merrick B. Garland on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and then for U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter. From 2008 to 2010, he worked for the Obama-Biden transition team and as deputy counsel to then-Vice President Biden, including on matters related to the Affordable Care Act and the selection and confirmation processes for U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sonia
Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

“I found the work interesting but pretty quickly started to miss deep legal research and writing,” he says. “I would look enviously at folks at the federal Department of Justice getting to write briefs and argue cases.”

Mongan has done plenty of that in the California Department of Justice, which he joined after four years at Munger, Tolles & Olson. The Supreme Court granted certiorari in the DACA case around the time he was appointed solicitor general by then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra, JD ’84 (BA ’80). Mongan took charge of the office in August; the case was argued in November.

“It was very much out of the frying pan and into the fire,” he laughs. “It was my first U.S. Supreme Court argument and maybe the greatest honor of my professional life to be one of two advocates, along with Ted Olson, on our side of the ‘v’ in that case.”

Mongan says he follows the lead of current California Attorney General Rob Bonta, using the “tools of our department to proactively and affirmatively advance and protect the interests of the state and the people who live here.”

He also tries to advance the careers of his deputies. He says his first-ever appellate argument came only because his client and more senior attorneys at Munger Tolles (including Michelle Friedland, JD ’00, now a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) were willing to give him a shot. He tries to do the same for his team members.

That’s how Hong got her chance, and her blueberry muffin.

“He finds it personally important to give opportunities to others in the office,” she says. “Not all solicitors general would do that.”

DuMont agrees. “In cases where we weren’t going to be the stars,” he says, Mongan “was totally committed to helping others do their best work, even though that’s not where you’re going to get the credit or the glory.”  SL