December 8, 2014 / 11:13 AM / 3 years ago

Chamber of Commerce forms its own elite law team

U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Donohue speaks in his annual State of American Business address at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington in this January 11, 2011 file photo.Kevin Lamarque/Files

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Advocacy groups have long played an important role in Supreme Court litigation, crafting amicus or “friend of the court” briefs in significant cases. The American Civil Liberties Union and consumer-oriented Public Citizen regularly make such filings.

But perhaps no other national advocacy organisation has so embraced the trend toward Supreme Court specialization as the chief American business lobby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber has created the equivalent of a boutique law firm at its headquarters, one whose roster of talent now rivals some of Washington’s most elite practices.

A few other advocacy groups have one or two former Supreme Courts clerks on staff; the chamber employs five. One of those former clerks was among the George W. Bush Administration lawyers who prepped Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito for their confirmation hearings.

The lobby’s formal effort to use the courts to influence the government can be traced to a 1971 memo sent to a Chamber of Commerce official from Virginia lawyer Lewis F. Powell.

Powell wrote the memo just five months before he became a justice himself. In it, he called on the chamber to create a legal staff to represent business interests before the court. The court’s influence in American life was growing: Civil rights, labour and consumer rights groups were prevailing in the courts – “often at business’ expense,” Powell wrote. “Other organizations and groups, recognising this, have been far more astute in exploiting judicial action than American business.”

The U.S. Chamber Litigation Center was created in 1977 and filed scores of friend-of-the-court briefs over the next three decades. In 2008, the centre's director was featured in a New York Times Magazine cover story about the Roberts court’s pro-business rulings.

But inside the organisation, some clamoured for a more aggressive approach.

In 2010, chamber CEO Thomas Donohue began replacing the longtime legal team with former Bush Administration appointees.

As a result, say senior lawyers at prominent Washington firms, the chamber became more active before the Supreme Court and throughout the U.S. court system. The chamber still hires outside counsel to help write its briefs, but it has increased its filings nationwide from about 100 last year to about 150 this year, chamber lawyers said. Part of the strategy, they said, is to follow through and write briefs that help enforce pro-business Supreme Court decisions in the lower courts.

Donohue’s first hire, chamber officials said, was Lily Fu Claffee, a senior Bush official at the treasury, justice and commerce departments. Claffee earns more than $900,000 a year, significantly more than her predecessor, the most recent tax records show. Claffee used her experience in her previous job – the partner responsible for hiring lawyers in Mayer Brown’s Washington office – to create her own boutique shop at the chamber. In addition to five former Supreme Court clerks, half of the eight lawyers are Harvard Law School graduates.

“We hired people with commitment, belief and purity of purpose,” said Claffee, who can quote by heart phrases from Powell’s 1971 memo. “It’s all part of strengthening our brand and our substance.”

Reporting By John Shiffman. Edited by Blake Morrison.

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