July 6, 2004
Solicitor general Olson rejoining L.A. law firm
By Joe Cantlupe
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON -- After Ted Olson, the U.S. solicitor general, lost his wife, Barbara, in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he grieved deeply. Then he made up his mind: He would pour his energy into his work.
Olson became the voice of the administration before the Supreme Court on the war on terrorism, the very thing that destroyed the person he held most dear.
For Olson, who lived in Palos Verdes Estates for years as a private attorney before moving to Washington to work for then-President Reagan, the terrorist attack didn't represent something far away. It was real; it hit home.
After three years as solicitor general and more than two decades in Washington, Olson plans to step down this month. He recently decided to return to work in the Washington office of the Los Angeles firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where he served before becoming solicitor general in 2001.
Olson was solicitor general for five months before hijackers crashed a plane carrying his wife into the Pentagon.
Less than a month after Barbara's death, an event that he still alludes to as awful, the conservative appellate specialist was back at work, arguing a telecommunications case before the Supreme Court.
"In a way, it was therapeutic to put myself back into my work," Olson, 63, said in a recent interview with Copley News Service.
As solicitor general, Olson has won 23 of 26 cases argued before the high court, which Justice Department officials labeled an extraordinary record.
Among the topics of his high-profile cases: campaign finance law, the Pledge of Allegiance and the vice president's energy task force.
His most memorable case might have come before he was solicitor general. He represented George W. Bush in the legal battle waged before the Supreme Court over the disputed 2000 presidential election. Bush became president after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor concerning contested votes from Florida.
"I think he will be remembered for his involvement in Bush v. Gore, and the only solicitor having a major hand getting his employer into office," said Mark Mohler, an analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute.
Foes and proponents alike commend Olson as a litigator, a man of simple words in both his speech and his exhaustive legal briefs. He is seen as one of the top appellate lawyers in the country.
Referring to the Bush v. Gore case, Olson said: "In retrospect, I am exceedingly grateful that the tactical decisions that we made along the way turned out as well as they did."
Olson said he has a specific game plan when he tries cases before the high court.
"I try to develop the essence of the legal issue before the court and to present it in a straightforward, honest style," he said.
His legal views reflected a conservative, Republican outlook, according to some legal observers.
"He is very active in the conservative Federalist Society," said Mohler of the Cato Institute. "He was really one of the leading critics of the Clinton administration during the 1990s."
Those views sometimes were jarring to some of the careerists at the Justice Department, according to observers.
And rarely -- but sometimes -- they fell flat on the Supreme Court. One of his greatest defeats came recently, when the high court rejected his arguments on behalf of the Bush administration that the government may detain terrorism suspects without giving them access to the courts.
"It's fair to say, in a very large measure, he was a very aggressive advocate who had a right-wing position and the court had a mixed reaction," said Eliot Mitzburger of the liberal People For the American Way. "He's quite willing to argue vigorously. He's the kind of person that Bush wanted."
Olson was born in Chicago and educated at public schools in California. He received his bachelor's degree cum laude from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, and law degree from Boalt Hall in Berkeley.
He served as assistant attorney general for the office of legal counsel from 1981 to 1984. Olson then returned to Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.
As solicitor general, Olson described his job as "exciting, inspiring and at times breathtaking."