On the morning of St. Patrick's Day in 2008, Ed Kneedler '67 donned his black morning coat and stood before the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court-as he had 99 times previously over the past three decades-to argue a case on behalf of the United States government.
When the deputy solicitor general concluded his argument in Republic of the Philippines v. Pimentel, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.-a former colleague of Kneedler's in the Justice Department-congratulated him on attaining a legal milestone that placed him in the rarified company of the great Daniel Webster and only a precious few other attorneys in the nation's history: arguing his 100th Supreme Court case. It was, as the Legal Times noted at the time, a "rare gesture of recognition from the bench."
"It has been a very great honor," Kneedler replied.
It came as no surprise to those who know Kneedler that others made a much bigger deal of the milestone than he did. His wife, Lynn, hosted a private party for family and friends at their home, and his fellow attorneys threw a celebration at the office about a week later that included a presentation of a framed list of all 100 cases he had argued before the Supreme Court. His former fraternity brothers from Lehigh's chapter of Delta Upsilon spread the news far and wide in e-mails bursting with obvious pride and affection.
For Kneedler, who joined the Justice Department late in the Ford Administration and has been in the U.S. Solicitor General's Office since the Carter Administration, it took a while for his achievement to sink in.
"Like milestones generally, it was a time to reflect on how did I get from there to here," he says.
The night of the office celebration, Kneedler recalls, "I came in and probably spent an hour just looking at that list [of Supreme Court cases] and remembering some of the cases and what were the highlights and what were the low points. So it was a wonderful occasion for that purpose, to reflect. I don't feel like I do a whole lot of that in my job here. You finish a brief and it gets printed and filed and then you move on to the next one."
The link to Daniel Webster-a towering figure from the Antebellum Era of our nation's history; a statesman, U.S. Senator, lawyer, and orator so gifted, he inspired short story writer Stephen Vincent Benιt to rework the Faust legend with Webster besting the Devil himself in a war of words-holds particular meaning for Kneedler.
But not for the reasons you might think.
"Webster was a great oral advocate. I'm no Daniel Webster," Kneedler quips, in the understated, self-deprecating manner that seems his natural comfort zone.
No, to discover why the Daniel Webster connection resonates so deeply with him, you have to look at his cufflinks.
A reminder of his roots
Edwin Smiley taught a civics course called "Problems of Democracy" at Abington, Pa., High School for 40 years. Every student who graduated from the school had to take the course, so Smiley influenced generations of students from around 1910 to sometime in the 1950s. He also had a profound influence on his grandson and namesake: Edwin Smiley Kneedler.
"I'm a great admirer of my grandfather," says Kneedler, who lost his own father-also a teacher, as were his mother, grandmother, and stepfather- when he was just 5 years old.
When his grandfather passed away, Kneedler received an heirloom to remember him by: a pair of cufflinks engraved with his initials. Years later, after Kneedler arrived at the Justice Department, he decided to wear his grandfather's cufflinks when he made his first appearance before the Supreme Court.
"I've worn his cufflinks to every one of my oral arguments because he devoted his life to reading about, thinking about, and teaching civics-government and democracy," Kneedler says. "And it's just a reminder to me of that part of my roots. Even though it's in a different way, I do feel like I'm at least trying to live up to his legacy in doing this."
Kneedler's career also was influenced by his grandmother, though in a more indirect way.
"My grandmother left me a small amount of money, so I did the only rational thing, which was to buy a car-a fast Mustang-and travel around the country with two college buddies," Kneedler says. "Those were the good old days."
Kneedler had arrived on South Mountain in 1963 intending to study civil engineering. He was interested in architecture and design, but admits, "I didn't really have a conception of what engineering would be like."
After his first year, he switched to a math major.
"I had done well with math in high school. I'm not sure what I had in mind for that, but I decided that wasn't for me, either. So I ended up in the business school and got a degree in economics."
While he wrestled with finding his academic niche, Kneedler quickly found a home at Delta Upsilon fraternity. "He loved the whole concept of being in a fraternity," his former roommate, Terry Hart '68, recalls. "We had a little too much fun, probably. He was a great ringleader for all the bridge games that went on."
Hart, who went on to become one of the original Space Shuttle astronauts and is now professor of practice in Lehigh's department of mechanical engineering and mechanics, was not at all surprised that Kneedler went on to a distinguished career in the Justice Department.
"He had a very strong social conscience at that time that was obviously going to be a lifetime thing for him," he says.
That social conscience was evident even during the road trip he took that summer after college with Delta Upsilon brothers Leo Barton '69 and Jim Donnelly '67, '68. In addition to having fun driving across country, Kneedler stopped at a rural job corps center located in a national forest headed by the father of another of his fraternity brothers, John van Bargen '68, '69, that provided education and job training for the poor.
It made such an impression on him that-after one year of graduate work in economics at Rutgers University-Kneedler joined Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA). He signed up for a program at a job corps center in eastern Oregon, "what's called the high desert country."
After six months, the center closed, and Kneedler spent the next two years working in a program to provide opportunities for migrant farm workers. "That was really life-altering because I'd never had any experience with witnessing poverty first-hand like that, or the way people in the migrant community take care of family and friends," he says. "I learned a lot."
One of the things he learned was the difference attorneys could make in the lives of migrant workers. By the time he finished his VISTA stint, Kneedler's older brother, Lane, had completed law school and was on the faculty at the University of Virginia. Kneedler decided to join him there, instead of pursuing an academic career in economics, and earned his law degree.
He had gotten married after his first year in law school (to a teacher, naturally), and the passion kindled in him for the West led him to take a law clerk position for Judge James R. Browning on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco. In 1975, as his clerkship year drew to a close, Kneedler applied to the Justice Department, hoping to wind up in the environment division.
But as fate would have it, his rιsumι wound up in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel instead, and he found himself interviewing with Antonin Scalia-now a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Scalia offered him a job, and he joined the office during the post-Watergate era, working on the ethics in government act. After four years, a former colleague who had moved over to the Solicitor General's Office contacted him about an opening there.
Kneedler started as an assistant to the solicitor general in 1979, and has been there ever since, through the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. He was named one of the four deputy solicitors general in the office in 1993, and served as acting solicitor general for several months in 2009 before President Obama's choice, Elena Kagan-now a Supreme Court justice-was confirmed.
Through the years, he has worked on cases ranging from immigration, labor, health care, Native American rights and environmental issues (again, tracing a direct link to that college road trip) to international law, national security, separation of powers and executive power. He argued his first case before the Supreme Court just three months after joining the solicitor general's office.
Kneedler has argued the government's position on many high-profile cases since then, from Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban refugee who was sent home to his father amid a political firestorm, to the recent challenge to Arizona's immigration law. But he has never been one to court the limelight.
"I feel incredibly lucky to have found this career. But found isn't even the right word. It just seems almost by chance that I ended up here. I still love what I'm doing. I feel very fortunate to have had this kind of calling, if you will, that fits my personality and interests. And representing the United States in court is a real privilege-and a responsibility that comes with it."
Photos by Theo Anderson
Story by Jack Croft
Posted on Tuesday, June 28, 2011