California Solicitor General Edward DuMont, JD ’86, is unusually busy these days. Often partnering with his counterparts in other states, DuMont is on the front lines as President Donald Trump and his congressional allies have taken steps to reverse policies on the environment, gun control, and immigration.
Already DuMont’s office is deeply involved in California’s effort to block the Trump administration from rolling back the nationwide auto pollution standards that have been key to the state’s progress in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. His office also has joined with lawyers from several states to challenge the president’s two immigration executive orders.
“Our priorities haven’t shifted,” since the presidential election, DuMont notes, “but the ground has shifted.”
The California Office of the Solicitor General is a specialized appellate unit that gets deeply involved in every case that goes to the state supreme court, the state and federal appellate courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court. The office works closely with colleagues in the state attorney general’s office and lawyers in individual agencies as well as with solicitors general from other states on matters of common concern.
California’s goal is the same as that of other states, DuMont says. “We want to preserve the maximum possible area to operate flexibly.”
Thirty-nine states now have a solicitor general, up significantly since the early 2000s. The growing numbers reflect a recognition by state attorneys general that appellate practice requires different skills from trial litigation or agency counseling and that an appellate win or loss can affect dozens of pending cases. Moreover, DuMont adds, the high court “wants to hear the perspective of states, even when they’re not parties.”
The California Office of the Solicitor General was created in 2001 but had a limited portfolio until 2013 when then-Attorney General Kamala Harris, now a U.S. senator, appointed DuMont in October of that year. She charged him with expanding the office’s footprint to more aggressively defend the state’s policy priorities. The 55-year-old DuMont now leads a small crew of eight lawyers—including four Stanford Law alums—within the state’s gargantuan attorney general’s office with its 4,200 employees and more than 1,100 lawyers.
“We want to make sure our voice is heard,” says DuMont. Toward that end, the solicitor general’s office is already handling “a significant docket” of Second Amendment cases including a challenge to California’s system for issuing concealed-carry permits.
In March, California became the first state to intervene in a move by automakers to weaken national auto-emission requirements, and DuMont has promised to be “all over” any federal efforts to restrict the state’s ability to maintain its own even tougher auto-emission standards.
Lawyers in the office are also defending a number of state criminal laws including the 2004 voter-approved legislation requiring DNA collection from individuals arrested for felony offenses and booked in jail. They have also been involved in challenges to California’s death penalty procedures.
Most states tend to be in agreement on a number of issues, particularly on criminal law matters, says Joshua
Klein, JD ’02, who joined the office in late 2014. “It’s not as though the states are always dividing into two litigation camps; states are generally interested in protecting their own interests and prerogatives, which are often similar,” he notes.
DuMont emphasizes that his office does not set the state’s agenda. “We are involved in advising the attorney general on which cases to get involved in and which cases to support and we are in the approval chain. But that process is very much led by the AG and people throughout the department.”
A Northern California native, DuMont earned his bachelor’s degree from Yale and after graduating from Stanford Law clerked for Richard A. Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He then spent several years in Washington and New York, at both the U.S. Department of Justice as an assistant solicitor general and WilmerHale.
Along the way, DuMont honed expertise as an appellate litigator. He has argued 20 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, involving a wide variety of issues, and he has authored dozens of briefs before the federal circuits as well as the high court.
Not long afterward, DuMont heard about the solicitor general opening. “It was too good a combination of the interests that were important to me not to throw my hat into the ring,” he says.
For Michael Mongan, JD ‘06, the chance to work with DuMont, whom he calls an “exceptional advocate,” drew him to the office. “If you’re an appellate geek, it’s hard to find a better place.”
Like DuMont, Mongan and colleagues Aimee Feinberg, JD ’02, and Klein all moved between private practice and public service before joining the solicitor general’s office. Klein did a stint as a federal prosecutor. Although, says Mongan, “My wife jokes that I can’t hold a job for more than a few years,” all three agree that the back-and-forth has made them far more skilled and versatile as appellate advocates.
For Feinberg, who has found public service to be “incredibly gratifying and humbling,” the range of interests in the office and the opportunity to do good as well as learn have made the job uniquely rewarding.
Max Carter-Oberstone, JD ’14, is the junior member of the team from Stanford, drawn to the office after he “latched onto” public interest work and particularly impact litigation during law school. He is the office’s current Earl Warren Fellow, a slot for recent grads who serve two-year stints as part of the attorney general’s Honors Program with the expectation that they will move on to a permanent job in the department.
Just months into the job, Carter-Oberstone has already argued his first case before the California Court of Appeal. The case involved Proposition 36, passed by voters in 2012, which permits reduced sentences for some criminals convicted of non-violent, non-serious crimes and allows judges to consider petitions for resentencing from prisoners convicted and sentenced before the measure took effect. A trial judge had denied a resentencing request from an individual incarcerated for some time; Carter-Oberstone argued for the state against the request on appeal.
The attorney who had briefed the case had to bow out, leaving Carter-Oberstone just two weeks to prepare for oral argument, the first of his career. In addition to reading the record, his colleagues put him through two moots. “It’s a painful process to hear yourself give unsatisfactory answers,” he recalls of the moots, but “by the end of it, I’d figured out why I wasn’t happy with my answers.” The argument “went all right,” he adds, chuckling a bit, “and it was an incredible learning experience.”
Molly Selvin, a legal historian and former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.