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Georgetown Law Professor Neal Katyal: 35 Supreme Court Oral Arguments — and Counting

November 30, 2017 —

Neal Katyal, the Paul and Patricia Saunders Professor of National Security Law at Georgetown Law, has surpassed the late Thurgood Marshall’s record for the most Supreme Court cases argued by a minority attorney in the history of the United States. Cyan v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund, heard on November 28, was Katyal’s 35th argument.

His career as a superstar Supreme Court advocate started with Osama bin Laden’s driver. Hamdan v. Rumsfeld was the first case that Katyal ever argued before the Supreme Court, in 2006. To prepare, he mooted the case 17 times, almost always at Georgetown Law’s Supreme Court Institute. Along the way, he enlisted the help of approximately 70 Georgetown Law students: 10 students per semester, for 70 semesters. And he won his case — successfully challenging the George W. Bush-era military commissions set up to try detainees in Guantanamo Bay.

“I still remember Hamdan so well,” Katyal said after arguing Cyan. “The Georgetown faculty were incredible, as were the students. My students loved beating up on me in the moots, and that experience taught me about how one must enter the mooting process with no ego, and with an absolute desire to improve. After Hamdan, I argued one other Supreme Court case with my Georgetown students in 2008 before going into the Solicitor General's Office, and mooted that one a dozen times too.”

Katyal served in the Office of the Solicitor General from 2009 to 2011, as principal deputy solicitor general and acting solicitor general of the United States. He’s now a partner at Hogan Lovells, and his six oral arguments last term in seven different cases constituted more than 9 percent of the Court’s docket, Adam Feldman reported on “Analytical SCOTUS” in May. 

But Katyal’s parents, who were immigrants from India, actually cried when he told them he was going to law school, he says.

“The law isn't the most respected profession in the Indian community, and they thought I was throwing my life away,” he recalls. “But they were always supportive of whatever I did, and to this day, I call my mom before every single oral argument.”

His late father, especially, would have been pleased to see him today. “He always saw this country as a place where barriers were meant to be shattered,” Katyal says. “His examples of fairness and strength are crucial. My sister, who is a law professor at Berkeley, has a deep sense of justice that inspires a lot of my work as well.” 

Expertise

Georgetown Law students continue to benefit from Katyal’s expertise. He’s now the faculty director of the new Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP), headed by Executive Director Joshua Geltzer and Senior Litigator from Practice Mary B. McCord. 

Hamdan…was made possible by the huge amount of student energy and work,” he says. “I've tried over the years to keep that spirit going, both in my teaching and my work with our Center on National Security and the Law. ICAP will continue that work, and it's my privilege to watch it take off.”

McCord and Geltzer, he says, are among the most accomplished lawyers in their respective generations. “To have our students learn from people like that is phenomenal.”  

As for Katyal, he proceeds to oral argument in the Ninth Circuit in Hawaii’s ongoing challenge to the latest version of President Trump’s travel ban. He’ll argue his 36th case, Hall v. Hall, before the Supreme Court in January. But he no longer needs to do 17 moots. 

“In the government…attorneys don't have time to constantly moot you, and so I could only do two moots,” he said, noting that in a few big cases, like the Voting Rights Act case, he still did more. “I love the process of getting knowledge and perspective from a bunch of people.” 

It’s not at all difficult to imagine that Katyal, like Marshall, might one day find a place on the Supreme Court. But right now, he’s enjoying the moment.  

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