His response was a mixture of his in-depth preparation and his ability to be light on his feet. Sotomayor did not ask him any further questions.
Last June, when the health care case that is now before the Supreme Court was being heard by a lower appellate court, Clement argued against Neal Katyal, who was then serving as the acting U.S. Solicitor General of the Obama administration. Before arguments, the courtroom was tense with anticipation. But Katyal and Clement stood together, hands in their pockets, spending several moments smiling and laughing.
Once the gavel banged, they tried to tear apart each other's arguments.
"Paul Clement is one of the very best oral advocates in the country. He is deeply prepared, engaged, comfortable at the podium, and charming on and off the court. His clients are lucky to have him," says Katyal.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1992, where he served for a time on the law review with Barack Obama, Clement clerked for two judges who are considered legal luminaries on the right, Judge Laurence H. Silberman, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Justice Antonin Scalia.
"Having served as a law clerk on the Court was tremendously helpful," Clement says in preparing him to argue before the justices. "It gives you an opportunity to see a lot of advocacy and get a sense of what works. "
Clement spent seven years in the Office of the Solicitor General, a division of the Department of Justice charged with government litigation in the Supreme Court. He headed the office from 2005 until 2008. During his tenure in government, he argued cases that included the landmark campaign finance decision, McConnell v. FEC; a decision that expanded the rights of individuals with disabilities, Tennessee v. Lane; and some of the key war-on-terror cases, including Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, Rumsfeld v. Padilla and Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. From there he moved to private practice.
David J. Garrow, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who has studied the history of the Supreme Court, says he can't remember the last time one advocate had "quite this stellar a trifecta" of big cases in one term.
"It reflects all the parties' perception that the justices have supremely high regard for Clement," says Garrow. "They similarly have high regard for other practitioners as well, but Clement is right now the man of the moment."
Garrow says it also points to a more recent trend in which a small number of attorneys appear repeatedly before the Court. "Over this past 10 to 12 years," he says, "high-profile cases have been argued by an all-star team that truly doesn't number more than 25. I think that reflects the understandable perception by parties of all stripes that the Court itself welcomes and embraces really first-rate representation."
Some say that Clement has become the go-to guy to represent the conservative position in cases that are politically divisive.
Michael J. Gerhardt, of the University of North Carolina School of Law, says that Clement is "moving to the front tier of experienced advocates who tend to specialize in ideologically driven cases."
He says, "Clement is clearly one of the more experienced and well respected litigators, but he also has in his mix of cases an unusually large number of cases that appeal to the conservative movement to reshape Supreme Court doctrine. "