In-House at the White House

Cheryl Stanton talks about working as a counsel and special assistant to President George W. Bush

Published in 2010 New Jersey Rising Stars magazine

By Erik Lundegaard on March 22, 2010


The first day Cheryl Stanton walked through the gates of the White House to begin work as associate White House counsel for labor and employment matters, and special assistant to the president, was Monday, Nov. 6, 2006. “It was overwhelming,” she says. “It was stressful, a little surreal, but it felt like an incredible honor.”

It was also the day before the 2006 midterm elections that would return Democratic majorities to the House and Senate. Talk about a tough first week. Did she notice a shift in mood?

“I can’t comment on the mood,” says Stanton, now with Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart in Morristown. But she does contrast the actual White House with the numerous fictionalized versions this way: “You see so many TV shows and movies about people in the White House who are jockeying with one another for power. And what was wonderful [in the Bush White House] was how many people were there to do the right thing. They might not agree with each other but they were always civil and respectful. And they might not agree what the right outcome was but people were genuinely taking positions they thought were the right positions to take. It was a very reassuring thing to see about government.”

Stanton clerked for Judge Samuel Alito in 1997-1998, just after graduating from law school at the University of Chicago, and while he was on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit. After his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005, she wrote articles and gave radio interviews in support of him. “He was very much: ‘Here is the law, and here are the facts, and we’re going to apply the law to the facts,’” she says of Alito.

In January 2006 she went down to D.C., to do the same during Alito’s congressional hearing. It was then that friends from law school, who were already working for the administration, suggested she submit her résumé. Eight months later she had an interview with deputy counsel Bill Kelly and White House counsel Harriet Miers. Several weeks later, she walked through the gates as an employee.

Working out of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, she provided legal information/advice to the staff making policy on labor and employment issues, and acted as liaison to other departments and agencies in the administration.

She also worked on the committee that made recommendations for court appointments to the president. Primarily her focus was on the 5th Circuit, and the three nominees she helped shepherd through the process were Judges Leslie Southwick, Jennifer Elrod and Catharina Haynes. All three were confirmed.

As for how they were selected? “We’d typically meet with them,” she says. “We might talk with people who knew them in the community. We’d learn about them. And if we thought they might be appropriate for these positions, a group would go to the president and make the recommendation.”

Generally in attendance at the Oval Office meetings were Vice President Dick Cheney, Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, the White House counsel (Miers or Fred Fielding), and, of course, President George W. Bush. “The Oval Office as decorated by President and Mrs. Bush was welcoming, but one did feel the awe of history when entering the room,” Stanton says. “Each president is permitted to design his own rug, and President and Mrs. Bush designed a rug with yellow rays emanating from the center like a sun to convey that President Bush approached his responsibilities with the same optimism and hope that we experience each morning with the sun rising.”

Stanton says Miers talked her through what to expect during her first meeting—even role-played with her—while her colleagues supported her. “And as soon as you walk in, you’re there to do business,” she adds. “You sit down and you talk to [President Bush] and he’s a real person. He cracked a joke and smiled. And it became very easy to talk to him about the work that needed to be done.”

President Bush, she says, “was a very, very sharp man. He would remember things that had happened at meetings weeks or months earlier. So you always had to be prepared because you might make a recommendation and he’d say, ‘The last time you said X, Y or Z. What’s changed? Why this?’”

His lack of a law degree, she says, never got in the way of the conversation. “He had a strong interest in the judiciary,” she says, “and so was well-versed in it, and he had an understanding of what he was looking for in judges and wanted to make sure we were looking for those qualities.” Those qualities include, she says, “judges who would faithfully interpret the Constitution—and not use the courts to invent law or dictate social policy.”

Stanton, 37, is now back representing private employers in labor and employment matters. She describes her role in the White House as more akin to an in-house counsel role. “And I enjoyed that immensely, don’t get me wrong,” she says. “But I did miss litigating.”

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