The Governor's Office announced Thursday that Huntsman's personal legal adviser, attorney Mike Lee, will leave his job to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, the most recent addition to the high court.
When Alito called, Lee said he hesitated just for a moment. In the end, his childhood dream won out.
"This is something that I dreamed of doing even before I went to law school," Lee said. "The Supreme Court is kind of a mysterious body. And you get to experience the inner workings of the court."
Starting in July, Lee will become one of four attorneys assigned to Alito's office for a year.
Six months ago, Huntsman predicted he wouldn't be able to keep Lee in his office much longer. And he was right. Lee was appointed the day Huntsman took office and is the third confidant to leave the office.
"I am disappointed, but extremely proud," Huntsman said in a news release. "There have been only a handful of Utahns who have ever been selected for this prestigious post in Washington."
Michele Christiansen, director of the state's Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, will replace Lee as the governor's general counsel.
The son of the late Rex E. Lee - former U.S. solicitor general, founding dean of the law school at Brigham Young University and former BYU president - Lee graduated from BYU law school in 1997. He clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Dee Benson in Utah for a year. Then he went to work as a clerk for Alito in New Jersey when he served on the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Alito had been an assistant solicitor general under Lee's father. After a job with a Washington, D.C., law firm, Lee returned to Utah and a post in the U.S. Attorney's Office. In 2004, Lee jumped when Huntsman called.
Now, he's jumped back to Alito. "It's a rare opportunity," Lee said. He compares it to going to the Super Bowl. He and his wife Sharon will pack up their three children and move to Washington later this summer.
His former law professors, court bosses and even his brother are not surprised.
"Mike Lee is probably as qualified a law clerk as I have ever met," Benson said Wednesday. "I could gush on about Mike Lee all day."
Utah Republican Party Chairman Joe Cannon, an attorney, called Lee "incisive," "witty" and "a lot like his father."
And BYU Law Professor Lynn Wardle described him as a "lawyer's lawyer."
"He enjoys wrestling with complex issues and he is pragmatic," said Wardle, who taught Lee in the mid 1990s.
In his time in the governor's office, Lee has overseen the state's lobbying and litigation strategies for blocking a proposed high-level radioactive waste storage facility on the Goshute Indian Reservation. He has interviewed judicial nominees, helped the governor draft letters to explain his vetoes of legislation and fielded requests for government records from the media.
His job at the Supreme Court will be very different. He will advise Alito, write first drafts of decisions and help sort through appeals to the court - "a lot of writing and research," Lee said. And he will take a pay cut from his $112,000 state salary.
Benson said Lee dreamed of clerking on the Supreme Court. He asked Benson to write recommendation letters to the late Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas when he finished his Utah clerkship. But he fell just short. Instead he clerked for Alito. Now, Alito has tapped him again.
"Nothing could be more flattering to be asked to come back and clerk for a man you have clerked for before," Benson said. Benson, who regularly talks to Lee, said he has political aspirations, but this clerkship also will put Lee on the fast track to a federal judgeship.
"Some people are ambitious for ambition's sake," Benson said. "He is ambitious because he just loves what he does."
Lee will join Adam Ciongoli, a counselor to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Hannah Smith, another former Alito clerk and BYU grad, at the Supreme Court.
Tom Lee says Alito seems to be picking more experienced clerks. Hiring trusted clerks is "especially important when a new justice comes to the court. He needs to hire clerks that will help him hit the ground running. This is an indication of the level of trust Justice Alito has in Mike," said Lee, a BYU Law School professor. "This is not something you turn down."
Education: Brigham Young University Law School, 1997; Student Body President 1993-1994; Political Science B.A. from Brigham Young University in 1994.
Family: Father Rex E. Lee was U.S. solicitor general and president of BYU. Brother Thomas Lee is a BYU law professor. Three children and wife, Sharon.
Professional experience: Clerk for U.S. District Judge Dee Benson, 1998; Clerk for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Samuel Alito, 1998-1999; private practice at Washington, D.C., office of Sidley and Austin; U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah, 2002; legal adviser to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., 2005-2006.