Michael Dreeben: Smart aleck and practical jokester
on Aug 1, 2019 at 10:40 am
Nicole Saharsky is co-head of Mayer Brown’s Supreme Court & Appellate Practice. She served for 10 years as an Assistant to the Solicitor General in the U.S. Department of Justice.
Look, I know I’m supposed to tell you about how Michael Dreeben is the world’s greatest lawyer. But I’m not going to do that. Anyone who has seen Michael argue a case knows how good he is. Instead, I want to tell you something most people don’t know: Michael Dreeben is hilarious.
To be clear: I don’t want to give you the impression that Michael spent his time in the SG’s office telling jokes and having fun. Michael worked relentlessly, writing recommendations, giving advice, editing briefs and arguing cases. He edited briefs in opposition while sitting at counsel table waiting for arguments to start, and while on a spin bike at the gym. So most of the time, Michael was all business. But once in a while …
One day many years ago, I was typing in Michael’s edits to our merits brief in Missouri v. McNeely, No. 11-1425. That was the case about whether the police could take a blood sample from a drunk driver without a warrant, and the Supreme Court said no. (That case is not to be confused with Mitchell v. Wisconsin, No. 18-6210, in which the Supreme Court said yes to seemingly the same question.)
Anyway, as part of the brief, we had a section addressing whether a blood draw is a significant Fourth Amendment intrusion. We decided to give examples of when people have their blood drawn in everyday life, to show that it is a relatively common procedure. The brief read:
Although a blood test involves a bodily intrusion, this Court has characterized it as minimal and commonplace. Blood tests are routinely performed during annual physical examinations, or to obtain a marriage license or enter the armed forces.
Immediately following that, Michael added another sentence:
Vampires also commonly take blood in our society.
I dutifully typed in Michael’s edit, then stopped short – vampires? It took me a minute to realize that Michael was a making a joke.
Let me give you another example. Michael, Joe Palmore and I worked together on two Supreme Court cases about drug-sniffing dogs – Florida v. Harris, No. 11-817, and Florida v. Jardines, No. 11-564. The cases were argued on the same day, and we won one (Harris) and lost the other (Jardines). The day after the loss, I came into the office and saw a poster up on my door, apparently advertising a forthcoming protest at the Supreme Court. It read:
DOGS FOR JUSTICE
Supreme Court Unfair to Law Enforcement Canines
Please join us for a rally on the Supreme Court plaza to protest
Florida v. Jardines
Let Our People Work!
The poster had a full-color picture of Franky, the dog whose work was at issue in Jardines. At the bottom it said: “Paid for by Dogs For Justice. Our mottos: ‘Two Feet Good, Four Paws Better.’; ‘The Nose Knows.’ ” Yes, that was all Michael.
I’ll give you one more. Some of you may be familiar with Bond v. United States, No. 09-1227, a case about a woman who attempted to poison a romantic rival with toxic chemicals and (appropriately) was charged with a serious crime. At oral argument in the case, Justice Alito expressed concern that the government’s interpretation of the underlying statute was too broad. He asked Michael:
Suppose that Petitioner in this case decided to retaliate against her former friend by pouring a bottle of vinegar in the friend’s goldfish bowl. As I read the statute, that would be a violation of the statute, potentially punishable by life imprisonment, wouldn’t it?
Later that week, a strange item appeared in the SG’s office refrigerator. It was a bottle of vinegar, labeled as follows:
Not for use on goldfish.
Prohibited Chemical Weapon
under Federal Law, 18 U.S.C. 229
The label had a color picture of a goldfish swimming in a bowl, which was a nice touch. It was very funny, and its source was clear – definitely Michael.
Do I have more stories like this? Yes. Am I going to tell them to you? No, definitely not.