WASHINGTON - Most bankers have probably never heard of Paul Bender. Yet this Justice Department official is instrumental in deciding which banking cases go before the Supreme Court.

It was Mr. Bender, a deputy solicitor general, who decided the government should intervene in the now-famous Valic case, which opened the door last winter to bank annuity sales.

He also brought the administration into the now-pending Barnett case, which will resolve whether states can ban national bank insurance sales.

And it is Mr. Bender who must decide whether to appeal a federal appeals court's ruling that the government broke the law when it forced thrifts to remove goodwill from their books.

So just who is this lawyer with so much influence over legal matters affecting the banking industry?

He's an Arizona State University law professor, on leave since 1993 to serve as Solicitor General Drew Days' top political appointee. He is responsible for all banking and civil rights cases. He also handles government contracts, commercial litigation, and employment cases.

Essentially his office recommends cases the Supreme Court should take and then tells the justices how the government believes they should rule. The justices apparently listen: Last year, the court took 70% of the cases recommended by the Solicitor General's office, and ruled in favor of the government 65% of the time.

The 1957 Harvard Law graduate brings a mixture of academic and government experience to the post. He clerked during the 1960s for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and served as an assistant to Solicitor General Thurgood Marshall. He taught constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania for more than two decades, leaving in 1984 to become dean at Arizona's law school.

In a meticulously neat office covered with prints from the National Gallery of Art, Mr. Bender freely admitted he has no banking experience. "My wife does the banking in our family, and she knows more than I do," he said.

To compensate, Mr. Bender said, he consults regularly with the banking agencies and has several assistants who follow financial cases closely.

Bob Griffin, the director of litigation at the Comptroller's office, said Mr. Bender is easy to work with.

"Paul Bender really is the archetypical professorial type," Mr. Griffin said. "He has a wide-ranging knowledge and he makes you examine every side of the issue."

Picking cases isn't easy, Mr. Bender admits. Disputes between courts always set off warning bells, he said. For example, federal appeals courts disagreed over whether states could ban bank insurance sales. So, the administration intervened in the Barnett case in the hope of setting the law straight, he said.

Mr. Bender also looks at cases where the government is on the hook for a lot of money or where the final outcome will affect scores of other cases. The goodwill case fits both criteria, he said.

Once he picks a case, an assistant will write a memo outlining the government's position. Mr. Bender reviews the memo and makes a recommendation to the solicitor general, who rarely overrides his deputies.

Though he loves his job, Mr. Bender did concede that the move back to Washington caused some culture shock. But he said he has no regrets about temporarily trading campus life for Washington's more frenzied pace.

"This is the world's best job for somebody interested in appellate practice and constitutional law," he said. "That is why I gave up a comfortable existence in Phoenix. I love oral arguments and there is no other job that lets you argue so much before the Supreme Court."

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