In a prelude to his first presentation before the U.S. Supreme Court, a young Washington lawyer enjoyed a front row seat to a historic legal drama. On January 13, 1997, a vigorous back-and-forth erupted between lawyers representing William Jefferson Clinton and Paula Jones, a case that would determine whether a sitting U.S. President could claim immunity from civil litigation.
From a raised mahogany bench, nine black-robed justices interrupted with pointed questions. In a courtroom adorned with ivory columns and marble walls, dark suits fumbled for answers and butterflies took flight in the stomach of David Frederick (Class of ‘79), the young lawyer waiting to argue his case. When the proceedings ended, Frederick would approach the bench and present his first case before the United State Supreme Court: Harbor Tug and Barge Co. v. Papai.
"I was tremendously nervous," Frederick recalls. "I'm watching this historic argument and then the courtroom empties. I turn around and there are six people left. Three are related to me. They've come to see me argue.”
The high court moved from a landmark case involving the separation of powers to an obscure legal dispute involving an injured longshore worker. As Frederick moved his briefs and notes to counsel table, Chief Justice William Rehnquist turned to Justice John Paul Stevens. The microphone, not yet turned off, carried these words: “Now this next case is really hard.”
Thus began the first of Frederick's 40 cases before the high court. Sixteen years later, Frederick, 51, ranks among America's brightest legal minds, a persuasive orator who has prevailed in a majority of cases before the Supreme Court. His 41st case is scheduled for March.
Frederick developed his oratory skills at Jefferson High School. He played a prominent role on the speech and debate team that went undefeated through four years of sweepstakes competition. As a senior in 1979, Frederick led Jefferson to the National Forensic League national tournament championship, scoring points in extemporaneous speaking (in which he finished second) and original oratory (eighth).
"What I do now is advanced extemporaneous speaking," Frederick says, "because when I'm arguing a case before the Supreme Court, I want to connect with the justices. I get interrupted with questions, and I have to give a crisp sound bite response. So all the training I did at Jefferson -- hundreds and hundreds of hours of practices, night after night -- prepared me for what I'm doing now."
In the fall of 1975, Frederick arrived at Jefferson with an interest in lighting and sound, the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes work of the school's stage crew. Two teachers, however, redirected him to another craft. B.J. Naeglin taught Frederick at Longfellow Middle School, where he excelled in speech. B.J.'s husband, Lanny, coached the speech and debate team at Jefferson.
“They projected I would be pretty good at extemporaneous speaking,” Frederick recalls, “but I had no idea what they were talking about.”
He became a quick study, piling up trophies as a freshman, placing second in original oratory at nationals as a sophomore. Todd Wong, Frederick’s high school debate partner, recognized the potential. “He’s a brilliant fellow, a fantastic speaker, a powerful advocate and a really good person,” says Wong (Class of ‘79). “What he’s achieved doesn’t surprise me.”
At the University of Pittsburgh, Frederick starred on the award-winning debate team, graduated with highest honors in political science and became the school’s first Rhodes Scholar. He earned a doctorate of comparative politics from Oxford and a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White.Eventually, he worked for the Solicitor General, who represents the federal government in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. As an assistant to the Solicitor General, Frederick learned how to strategize and fashion strong government positions. But like a tough prosecutor who becomes a skilled defense lawyer, Frederick switched sides and parlayed his knowledge and experience into victories for a wide range of private-sector clients, including States in boundary disputes, a foreign governmental entity that sells electricity in the United States, large and small companies, and individuals.
In 2008, he represented a Vermont woman who sued a drug manufacturer after complications from an injection led to the amputation of her arm. Diana Levine claimed Wyeth Pharmaceuticals failed to include a warning label describing potential injuries from the manner in which she was injected with the drug. Wyeth argued that its warning label was approved by the Federal Drug Administration and preempted state standards of care and remedies.
The dispute reached the high court. Frederick’s adversaries included former Solicitor General Seth Waxman (once his boss) and former Acting Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler (once his mentor). “I don’t think anybody predicted we were going to win,” Frederick says.
The Supreme Court delivered a 6-3 verdict for Frederick. “It established a principle: Even if a brand name drug company has gotten its warning label approved by the FDA, if the label is inadequate and the inadequacy leads to injury, a patient can sue for damages,” Frederick explains. “That is probably the most famous case I have argued so far in the Supreme Court.”
He is recognized for his legal genius and encyclopedic knowledge. Reporters from print and broadcast media solicit him for comment on Supreme Court issues. And why not? He once partnered with future Chief Justice John Roberts on a case, has written numerous articles and authored four books, including "Supreme Court and Appellate Advocacy," with a foreword by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The caseload can be crushing but Frederick finds escape in his wife Sophie and their children Aaron, Isabel, and James. For nine years he coached his sons' baseball teams. He also is an avid supporter of his favorite sports team, the San Antonio Spurs. He marks their games on his calendar and considers their television schedule when planning his business travel. After an arbitration in Chicago last year, Frederick thanked his lawyers and staff by taking them out to dinner.
"But we went out early so that we could be finished in time for the Spurs-Lakers game, which was on ESPN that night," says Frederick, who is excited about the current season unfolding. “I would love to get down for a Spurs playoff game.”
Watching the Spurs claim a fifth NBA championship would be sweet. Taking another case before the high court might be sweeter. After 16 years, yes, he still gets nervous before the Supremes. But every appearance is a pleasure, every presentation a rush. "It's a great day in my life," he says, "every time I get to do it."