Port City native Noel Francisco rose to highest levels of government but never forgot where he came from
OSWEGO — Oswego native and former solicitor general of the United States Noel Francisco in a recent interview with The Palladium-Times made a claim so outrageous it brought the conversation to a screeching halt.
From March 7, 2017 until he left the position this summer, Francisco represented the White House to the Supreme Court. It’s one of the highest-profile legal positions in the nation operating at the very top levels of government — there’s nowhere to go above the president and chief justice. For many lawyers, it would be the brass ring on a career.
“A colleague used to say, ‘If Noel could choose between being attorney general of the United States and mayor of Oswego, he’d choose mayor every time,’” Francisco told The Pall-Times. “And it’s accurate!”
To more fully understand that startling admission, it’s important to understand how Francisco views his hometown after several decades removed.
“When I get to Oswego, the moment I cross into the city it feels like the weight of the world has been lifted off my shoulders,” he said. “Nobody gives two hoots that I was the solicitor general and that’s what I love the most — people here are grounded in reality.”
Francisco was born in Syracuse, a first-generation American as his physician father had come to United States from the Philippines and met Francisco’s mother while working at a Connecticut hospital. After the elder Francisco served as an Army doctor at Fort Detrick, Maryland, the family decided to settle in Oswego near several other friends and colleagues in the medical field. Francisco describes his father as a quiet man, but steadfastly committed to and enchanted by the area.
“He didn’t want to move anywhere,” Francisco said of his father, once the family put down roots in the Port City.
It was at Oswego High School (with stops at Kingsford Park Elementary and St. Mary’s School, as well as the then-newly built Oswego Middle School), Francisco said he “formed the person I’ve become” partially due to the strong OHS humanities program which “started to form my views of the world into a sort of conservative viewpoint, but not really understanding what they were.” He still counts his classmates among his closest friends.
“When I come back to Oswego, the first thing I do is get the phone out, then the next thing is call my friends from high school,” he said, recalling a recent socially distant backyard beers session, some relief from “getting caught up in the Washington issues of the day.”
“Oswego is where I formed those lifelong friendships, where people live their real, authentic lives and everyone’s known each other forever,” he said.
The legal profession “very early on” appealed to Francisco, a different path than his parents took but one with which he was fascinated. His next move was enrolling in undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago, one of the most notoriously rigorous academic institutions in the world. For some people, U of C can be crushing. For others, well:
“I loved the University of Chicago. It was one of the few places I could go to be one of the cool people,” Francisco says with a chuckle. “It is accurately known to be a very intellectual and somewhat nerdy undergraduate population.”
During his time on campus, Francisco recalls not one but two studies were released ranking University of Chicago at the very bottom for quantifiable “having fun” data.
“It might not have been fun by certain metrics but it was a place where students were constantly engaging one another. The world opened up for me in terms of how I understood it,” he said, remembering one particularly influential economics class. “It put a structure on the things I felt and believed but never understood before.”
After a couple of years in the private sector, Francisco decided he liked being a U of C Maroon so much he went back for his law degree. With a University of Chicago juris doctorate in hand, he secured a job clerking for the United States Court of Appeals, fourth circuit, which often serves as a pipeline to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court justices. Two of his colleagues in the office previously obtained clerkships from Justices Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O’Connor and when the late Justice Antonin Scalia needed a clerk, Francisco had proved his mettle and moved up to Washington. While clerking, Francisco researched case law, prepared Scalia for oral arguments and drafted portions of majority and dissenting opinions as one of four clerks assigned to each justice. Francisco’s conservative, libertarian ideology comported well with Scalia, known as a originalist and textualist when it came to the United States Constitution but clerkships last only a year and Francisco soon found himself working for a small litigation firm, which is how he first “got a taste of government litigation.”
“I was the third associate this firm ever hired,” Francisco said. “The second was Ted Cruz.”
Cruz, of course, would go on to be elected U.S. Senator from Texas, a position in which he still serves. The Republican, who made a run for president in 2016, and Francisco remain close friends to this day. Cruz would eventually leave the firm in November 2000 — readers of a certain age may recall some noteworthy electoral litigation from around that time.
“He left to go work on Governor Bush’s campaign and assembled the legal team to litigate the Florida recount, and I along with a couple people at my firm helped litigate for Bush, which concluded successfully,” he said, humbly downplaying perhaps the most influential moment in American jurisprudence in the last half century. The “successful” conclusion of their case was, of course, George W. Bush ascending to the presidency.
Francisco then got the call up to the major leagues: the Bush White House he had just helped win. Working in the White House counsel’s office under Alberto Gonzales, who would go on to become U.S. attorney general was what Francisco describes as a type of “Forrest Gump” experience.
“Working for the president, I was constantly pinching myself at the situations I’d find myself in,” he said.
On May 19, 2003, Francisco found himself in what can be charitably described as a strange situation during a state dinner.
“It was maybe 100 people, and you’ve got Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Chaney standing around like it’s a cocktail party,” Francisco said, recalling moving through the room. “Then there’s the president in the corner, and he kind of shouts at me and waves me over — it’s absolutely crazy.”
The glamour of international diplomacy is nice, of course, but it isn’t why Francisco got into the business.
From the White House, he went to the Department of Justice as a member of their legal counsel. Fast forward several successful years, and Francisco had earned what he calls “the best job I’ve ever had” when he was selected President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the United States Office of the Solicitor General.
“Every significant policy issue seems to have been litigated and a large proportion are litigated through the Supreme Court,” he said. “You’re in the middle of it, right in the middle of it. I like being in the mix and when you’ve got a client that’s on the ropes in court, you’re charged with getting that client off the ropes. I loved private practice but the solicitor general’s office brought it to a new level.”
If the solicitor general’s office was a new level, Francisco was about to be rocketed to the moon.
On Sept. 9, 2020, the Trump administration released a list of 20 individuals of Supreme Court candidates following the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On that list were 19 other people and Noel Francisco.
“I was extraordinarily flattered,” he said. “It puts you among a group of lawyers that are just off the charts, and it’s a nice acknowledgement that at least someone thinks of you in the same caliber as the others.”
Francisco speaks fondly of rubbing elbows with heads of state and litigating landmark cases, but nothing makes him as animated as describing his pride in being asked to give the commencement address at the 2013 Oswego High School graduation ceremony.
“It was such a pleasure to be standing there, talking to the graduates about how much I love Oswego,” he said. “It’s a part of who I am.”
EDIT: Nov. 26 10:48 a.m.
A prior version of this story contained a small but important error resulting from a misheard word — in describing his visits to Oswego, Francisco said he gets his "phone out" and not, as originally printed, his "boat out." Mr. Francisco is not a boat owner. The Pall-Times regrets the confusion.