Nearing 50 Supreme Court arguments in, lawyer Lisa Blatt keeps winning

WASHINGTON — No woman has appeared before the Supreme Court more times than Lisa Blatt, who will make her 50th oral argument this month.

No lawyer, male or female, has done it with the same mix of humor, passion and style. And her win-loss record isn’t bad either: 40-6, with two cases still to be decided.

She elicits a laugh and the occasional sharp response from the judges, who seem to enjoy Blatt’s presentations as much as her legal insight.

When Blatt joked that Judge Samuel Alito was her “enforcer” with a friendly question in a case over an alleged retaliation arrest challenged last month, the judge said, “I’m not trying to be your enforcer in any way. …You don’t need one by any means.

The Supreme Court’s guide for lawyers arguing before the justices essentially warns against attempts to emulate Blatt.

“Attempts at humor usually come to nothing. The same goes for attempts at familiarity,” the guide advises. “Avoid emotional speeches and loud, impassioned pleas. A well-reasoned and logical presentation without resorting to theatrics is easier for listeners to understand.”

She can be strikingly informal, in one instance referring to the highest court in the land as “you.” She is often blunt, telling Justice Elena Kagan that her question was factually and fundamentally wrong. She has resorted to the personal, in one instance where she felt her Harvard-educated opponent was condescending. “I didn’t go to an expensive law school, but I am very confident in my presentation of case law,” said the University of Texas graduate.

“Texas is a great law school,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, just as the arguments ended and before the court unanimously awarded Blatt the victory.

Blatt can also be hyperbolic, warning last year that a decision against her client, a Turkish bank, would be “borderline cataclysmic.” A ruling that would recognize much of Oklahoma as tribal land would be “earth-shattering.” consequences, she said in 2018. The judges risked causing “madness, confusion and chaos” if they ruled for a high school student suspended from the cheerleading squad for a vulgar social media post.

Clients continue to hire her and the court continues to agree to hear her cases, said Paul Clement, Blatt’s friend and former boss at the Justice Department.

“She just has an inimitable style and she’s very confident in her own style, and the judges love that,” said Clement, who has protested at the Supreme Court more than 100 times. Only a dozen active lawyers who have presented no less than 50 arguments.

Blatt, 59, makes no apologies.

“Oral arguments are like truth serum. Under the stress of their interrogation, you cannot become someone you are not,” she said in an email. “I think I am very direct, but essentially my style reflects the fact that I want to win and the Court wants to walk in the shoes of the party I represent.”

She heads the Supreme Court and appellate practice at law firm Williams and Connolly, where her husband is also a partner. They have two children who are studying law. Blatt has argued just over half of her cases in private practice, the rest as an attorney in the Department of Justice.

When she first appeared in court in December 1996 at the age of 31, there were two women in the court, Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ginsburg. Blatt had clerked for Ginsburg on the federal appeals court in Washington.

Today, four out of nine judges are women, a record. The percentage of women arguing for them is lower, although the number has increased significantly over this period. Since October, just over a third of arguments have been made by women, compared to less than a quarter of arguments the year before.

Blatt is one of a handful of women in private practice who regularly argue before the Supreme Court, and she has highlighted the lack of diversity. Last term, two women in her firm argued three cases between them and her former partner Charles McCloud is one of the few black men to argue in court in recent years. McCloud now works for the Department of Justice.

She also courted controversy in 2018, when Blatt, a self-described “liberal Democrat and feminist,” publicly supported the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. She called him “the best choice liberals could reasonably hope for” at a time when Republicans controlled the Senate and the White House. Blatt testified before college professor Christine Blasey Ford came forward with the explosive accusation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her while they were in high school. Kavanaugh has denied any wrongdoing.

Opponents of Kavanaugh’s nomination complained that Blatt spoke out because she often represents wealthy clients at the Supreme Court. Brian Fallon, then a member of the progressive justice reform group Demand Justice, wrote in a tweet at the time that Blatt “put corporate interests above progressive causes.”

Corporate clients are a major part of Blatt’s business, including Google, Atlantic Richfield Co., Bank of America and Starbucks. She is representing the coffee chain in what will be her 50th argument in a dispute with the National Labor Relations Board over employee efforts to organize at a store in Memphis, Tennessee.

On Monday, Blatt will represent James Snyder, the former mayor of Portage, Indiana, who is appealing his bribery conviction. Other clients include Lynn Goldsmith, the photographer who won a copyright battle over an Andy Warhol image of the singer Prince, and state and local government officials.

The case she argued last month that prompted the exchange of “enforcers” with Alito involved a city council member in the San Antonio suburb of Castle Hills, Texas, who claims she was arrested on a trumped-up charge because she spoke out against the mayor and his allies.

Blatt, who represents the mayor, said it would be easy to get away with crimes if the court rules against the mayor.

“I mean, I would really encourage any criminal to put a, you know, political bumper sticker on their car,” she said, laughing.