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

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

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

She elicits laughs and the occasional sharp response from the justices, who seem to enjoy Blatt's presentations as much as they respect her legal acumen.

When Blatt joked that Justice Samuel Alito was being her “enforcer” with a friendly question in a case about a claimed retaliatory arrest that was argued last month, the justice said, “I’m not trying to be your enforcer by any means. ... You don’t need one, by any means.”

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The Supreme Court's guide for lawyers who are arguing before the justices essentially warns against trying to emulate Blatt.

“Attempts at humor usually fall flat. The same is true of attempts at familiarity,” the guide advises. “Avoid emotional oration and loud, impassioned pleas. A well-reasoned and logical presentation without resort to histrionics is easier for listeners to comprehend.”

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

“Texas is a fine law school,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, just as the arguments were ending and before the court handed Blatt a unanimous win.

Blatt also can be hyperbolic, cautioning last year that a decision against her client, a Turkish bank, would be “borderline, you know, cataclysmic." A ruling that recognized a large swath of Oklahoma as tribal land would have “earth-shattering” consequences, she said in 2018. The justices risked causing “madness, confusion, and chaos” if they ruled for a high school student who was suspended from the cheerleading squad over a vulgar social media post.

Clients keep hiring her and the court keeps agreeing to hear her cases, said Paul Clement, Blatt's friend and onetime boss at the Justice Department.

“She just has this kind of inimitable style, and she’s very confident in her own style and the justices love it,” said Clement, who has argued more than 100 times at the Supreme Court. Only a dozen active lawyers who have made as many as 50 arguments.

Blatt, 59, makes no apologies.

“Oral argument is like truth serum. Under the stress of their questioning, you can’t become someone you aren’t,” she said in an email. “I do think I am very direct but at bottom, my style reflects the fact that I want to win and the Court to step into the shoes of the party I am representing.”

She heads the Supreme Court and appellate practice at the Williams and Connolly law firm, where her husband also is a partner. They have two children in law school. Blatt has argued just over half her high court cases in private practice, the rest as a Justice Department lawyer.

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

Today, four of the nine justices are women, a record. The percentage of women who argue before them is lower, though the number has jumped markedly this term. Since October, just over one-third of the arguments were made by women, compared with under one-quarter of arguments the year before.

Blatt is one of only a handful of women in private practice who regularly argue at the Supreme Court and she has called out the lack of diversity. Last term, two women in her firm argued three cases between them and her onetime partner Charles McCloud is one of the few Black men who have argued at the court in recent years. McCloud now works for the Justice Department.

She also courted controversy in 2018, when as a self-described “liberal Democrat and feminist,” Blatt publicly backed Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. She called him “the best choice that 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 allegation that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her while they were in high school. Kavanaugh has denied any misconduct.

Opponents of Kavanaugh’s confirmation complained that Blatt spoke up because she often represents wealthy clients at the Supreme Court. In a tweet at the time, Brian Fallon, then with the progressive judicial reform group Demand Justice, wrote that Blatt puts “corporate interests ahead of progressive causes.”

Corporate clients are an important part of Blatt's business and include 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 efforts by workers to unionize at a store in Memphis, Tennessee.

On Monday, Blatt is representing 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 fight involving an Andy Warhol image of the singer Prince, and state and local government officials.

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

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

“I mean, I really would advise every criminal to put a, you know, political bumper sticker on their car,” she said, to laughter.

Mark Sherman, The Associated Press