Chief of staff eager to serve Supreme Court

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By John Minnis

Legal News

Where does one get the kind of experience necessary to serve as Legal Counsel to the Michigan Supreme Court? Try the White House.

Michigan native Matthew Schneider, who was recently named counsel to the state's high court as well as chief of staff, previously served as senior adviser and assistant general counsel to the White House Budget Office during President George W. Bush's first term.

With a Top Secret/SCI clearance, Schneider, 37, could tell some amazing stories following 9/11, but then he'd have to kill you, as the joke goes. But the attorney-client privilege--and his professionalism--prevents him from telling tales, so the nation's secrets (and our lives) are safe.

"The work was never typical," Schneider says of working in the White House. "It was important and critical, but after Sept. 11, we had a heightened sense of urgency."

The road to the White House for Schneider began in Frankenmuth, where he grew up. His wonder of the outside world was piqued by the tens of thousands of tourists the small farming/shopping/fried chicken Mecca attracts yearly.

Schneider's curiosity of the world led him to earning an undergraduate degree in international relations from James Madison College at Michigan State University. During that time he also studied at Cambridge in England and worked as Gov. John Engler's travel assistant.

Upon completing law school at the University of Michigan in 2000, Schneider was wooed by two suitors: a Washington, D.C. law firm and the CIA. He settled for the law firm, Wiley, Rein & Fielding, now Wiley Rein, a prominent D.C. firm with 270 lawyers.

While at the firm, the young attorney advised clients on business and trade issues. He also served as general counsel to the country's largest steel company.

Two weeks after 9/11, the CIA reinitiated contact.

"I came extremely close to going to the CIA," Schneider says, "and then the White House called. That was extremely hard to turn down. The CIA made it clear there wouldn't be a third time."

Schneider returned to Michigan in 2003 as an assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit. In that role, he prosecuted local gang and drug cases, including the Joy Road Drug Gang. "After awhile," Schneider says, "I worked up a niche as a gang prosecutor."

Most recently, he was a member of the U.S. attorney's Public Corruption Unit, investigating and prosecuting corrupt politicians, organized crime and drug trafficking. He is also a visiting professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, teaching constitutional law.

Already a month at the Michigan Hall of Justice, Schneider says his position encompasses four jobs:

1) General counsel to the Supreme Court and trial courts--"judges get sued, courts get sued."

2) Chief of staff--management and supervision.

3) Legislative liaison to the House and Senate.

4) Utility fielder--different roles and special projects as they arise.

Top on his and Chief Justice Robert P. Young Jr.'s agenda will be downsizing Michigan's judicial system to reflect the state's shrinking population and increasing efficiencies.

Schneider says he speaks with the chief justice on a daily basis. Upon being elected chief justice by his fellow justices, Young vowed to reduce the costs of the courts and to make them more efficient.

"Chief Justice Young is extremely aware of the state of the courts," Schneider says. "We speak regularly about the courts."

For years, the State Court Administrative Office has been recommending not just decreasing the number of judgeships, where appropriate, but has also been working on a statewide case management system that will be available to all Michigan's trial courts. Ultimately, the project could support a PACER-style case information system, similar to the federal courts. Schneider's experience with the U.S. attorney will be helpful.

"I came from the federal system," he says. "For the last eight years I was extremely involved with the federal docket. This court does not have a system like PACER."

Estimates are that a federal style computer system for the state courts would cost some $24 million, but if there is a way to cut costs and find efficiencies to make the system pay for itself, Schneider will find it.

At the White House, he worked for Mitch Daniels, the director of the Office of Management and Budget who the president nicknamed "The Blade" for obvious reasons. As his budget-cutting assistant, the president dubbed Schneider "The Pocketknife."

"It was nice to have a presidential nickname," Schneider says.

At the White House, Schneider also vetted the president's signing statements, executive orders and proposed legislation. As an attorney with Wiley Rein, Schneider advised some of the country's largest corporations. As a U.S. attorney, Schneider prosecuted some of the state's most notorious criminals.

As legal counsel and chief of staff to the Michigan Supreme Court, Schneider will likely draw on all of his experience to bring the state's judicial branch into the 21st century.

"A lot of what I learned in my previous jobs, I will use here," Schneider says. "The ability to think on your feet and react quickly is essential."

Published: Thu, Feb 17, 2011

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