Trump Team Shuffles Lawyers in Hours Before Travel Ban Hearing

  • Two top defenders of ban step back as their ex-firm weighs in
  • Jones Day, with alumni in Trump roles, assisting foes of ban

Just hours before mounting the biggest defense of the young Trump administration, the Justice Department swapped lawyers.

The U.S. said the two top lawyers representing the U.S. would not take part in Tuesday’s hearing, because of their past relationship with one of the world’s biggest law firms, Jones Day. Instead, August Flentje, a longtime Justice Department lawyer, will argue the administration’s case.

The lawyers who stepped aside worked until recently at Jones Day, which filed a brief on Monday opposing the administration’s order to bar U.S. entry to people traveling from seven majority-Muslim countries. The executive branch doesn’t have “unreviewable authority” to suspend the admission of a class of aliens, Jones Day argued in a brief on behalf of several constitutional scholars.

At least a dozen lawyers have joined the administration from Jones Day, a Cleveland-based firm with 2,500 lawyers in offices around the world. Other Jones Day alumni include Donald McGahn, the White House general counsel. That has raised the possibility of appearances of conflict on a range of matters, including for the two attorneys who have until now led the government’s defense of the immigration ban.

Acting Solicitor General Noel Francisco and Acting Associate Attorney General Chad Readler joined the administration in recent weeks from Jones Day. Francisco and Readler didn’t sign on to the brief the U.S. filed ahead of Tuesday’s hearing “out of an abundance of caution, in light of a last-minute filing of an amicus brief by their former law firm,” the government said. 

Read more: The legal struggle over the immigration order -- a Q&A

The filing put Flentje and Justice Department lawyer Edwin Kneedler atop the list of U.S. lawyers. Flentje has worked for the Justice Department’s civil division for most of his 19-year career there. Kneedler, who has been with the solicitor general’s office since 1979 and served as deputy there for the past 24 years, has argued more than 100 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Justice Department declined to comment beyond its court filing. Jones Day didn’t respond to requests for comment.

It’s standard practice for lawyers who join a new administration to distance themselves from any matter that involves their law firms. What’s rare is that an administration would need its solicitor general and Justice Department to defend a signature action just weeks into its first term, when affiliations with previous employers are so fresh.

At the Justice Department, Francisco and Readler have led the administration’s effort to get a San Francisco-based appellate court to restore the executive order on immigration while a Seattle court examines its legal foundations. In Tuesday’s telephone hearing, the Justice Department lawyers will face off with lawyers from state attorneys general from Washington, Minnesota and Hawaii, who want the immigration ban to remain suspended as its merits are under review.

The role of Francisco and Readler after Tuesday’s argument is unclear.

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