When Harry Korrell argued his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court in December, a case of nerves would have been understandable. But Korrell, 39, said...

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When Harry Korrell argued his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court in December, a case of nerves would have been understandable.

But Korrell, 39, said the grandeur of the setting and the gravity of the issues only enhanced what he described as “a great experience.”

“By the time I stood up there and took the podium, I felt I was in command of my case, in command of my facts and in command of my argument,” Korrell said. “It sounds arrogant, but by the time I stood up there, I felt like there wasn’t anybody better to have that conversation with the court.”

Korrell attributed his confidence to having represented Parents Involved in Community Schools for more than six years — pro bono — in the group’s lawsuit against the Seattle Public Schools. The group, and the families it represents, believed the district’s “Open Choice” plan violated the Constitution by using race as a factor in assigning students to oversubscribed Seattle high schools. The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Korrell and the parents’ group in a 5-4 decision.

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Before arguing this Supreme Court case, Korrell was best known to Washington residents for his recent work on election law. In 2004 and 2005, Korrell was one of the lead attorneys representing the Washington state Republican Party in its unsuccessful legal battle over the 2004 governor’s race, in which Democrat Christine Gregoire defeated Republican Dino Rossi by 129 votes.

The parents’ case came to Korrell and Davis Wright Tremaine colleague Dan Ritter on referral from Dick Derham, a retired attorney who spent more than 30 years at Davis Wright and who is a well-known champion of conservative political causes. (Over time, Korrell took on the bulk of the work on the case.)

“I said sure, it seems like the right thing to do,” said Korrell. “It’s litigation” — Korrell’s expertise — “and I’m politically conservative.”

Korrell moved to the Puget Sound area in 1982, when his father, who was in the Navy, was transferred to Bremerton. He did his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington and obtained his law degree from the University of Chicago. In 2000, he became a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, where his primary focus is employment litigation.

Korrell got involved in the Rossi case because he had volunteered as lead counsel in Washington state for Lawyers for Bush-Cheney 2004, a national network of Republican lawyers poised to go to court if the presidential race became contested in any state, as it was in Florida in 2000.

From 2000 to 2002, Korrell estimated he spent roughly one-third of his time working on the tiebreaker case.

When he went before the Supreme Court on Dec. 4, his first question came from Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Kennedy — who, as expected, provided the critical swing vote that determined the outcome of the case — asked Korrell a tricky question about why his argument differed from that of the U.S. Office of the Solicitor General, which had filed a brief that also opposed Seattle’s racial tiebreaker, but on slightly different grounds.

“Kennedy’s question was a little bit of a curveball, but I recognized it as a curveball,” Korrell said. He gave a succinct summary of the differences and reiterated the two parties’ shared bottom line: that it is unconstitutional to assign students to schools based on their race unless the purpose is to undo a history of forced racial segregation.

Thursday’s outcome was “what I expected,” Korrell said, obviously proud at what he had accomplished for himself and for his clients.

“To win at the U.S. Supreme Court is just outstanding,” Korrell said with a broad smile. “I’m thrilled by it. I haven’t had the chance I’d like to sit down and read over this almost 200 pages of opinions to see what of my own pearls of wisdom the court agreed with and what got shredded, but I’m looking forward to doing that.”

David Bowermaster: 206-464-2724 or dbowermaster@seattletimes.com

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