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Abner J. Mikva

Photo of the Hon. Abner MikvaAbner Joseph Mikva is a rarity: he served, with distinction, in all three branches of government. He was a five-term Democrat congressman from Illinois, chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit, and White House counsel for President Bill Clinton. He has also served as a law professor at the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago, and writes frequently about judicial and political issues.

The Wisconsin native graduated from the University of Chicago law school, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton, then returned to Chicago to practice labor law with Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg.

In 1956, he ran for the Illinois House as a Democrat against the Democrat machine, and was elected. In fact, he was named "best freshman legislator" by Springfield reporters. Along with Paul Simon, he fought for fair housing and against corruption in the state welfare system, winning the enmity of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Daley's political machine tried to freeze Mikva and Simon out, but the two persevered, and eventually Mikva wrote sweeping reforms of the state criminal code, as well as of its mental health facilities. He moved from Springfield to Washington and became a leader in the U.S. House of Representatives in key committees. Nevertheless, he was out of Congress in 1972 after the Republican party remapped his district with the tacit approval of Chicago's mayor. He returned in 1974 by winning in a largely conservative and wealthy district.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated Mikva for the federal appeals court in the District of Columbia, a seat of judicial power second only to the Supreme Court. His nomination touched off a six-month lobbying campaign from an old nemesis, the National Rifle Association, and he barely made it out of the judiciary committee. Even in Mikva's victory, his conservative enemies challenged the appointment with an unsuccessful lawsuit.

Mikva served sixteen years on the appeals court, rising to chief judge. He authored more than three hundred opinions, including several defending free speech, as well as a strong defense of consumer rights, especially in a case involving laxer standards for air bags. His idealism could be quixotic at times, as in his striking down of a Defense Department ban on gays in the military, which was later reversed. A dozen years of Republicans in the presidency prevented him for an appointment to the Supreme Court.

In an era when it was fashionable to bash government as unwieldy and inefficient, Mika defended it against the cynics. "The closer we live together, cheek and jowl, the more we need government," he said.

That included defending the office of the chief executive. In 1994, President Clinton asked Mika to give up his lifetime appointment to the bench and replace Lloyd Cutler as White House counsel. It was the time of Ruby Ridge, of Waco, of Whitewater, and of the investigations of several Cabinet members. Mikva proved to be a passionate defender: of Whitewater, he simply said, "There's nothing there," and posterity has proved him right.

The Paul Douglas Award winner's "retirement years" have been anything but retiring. Besides his college teaching duties, he has served as a tireless advocate for the consumer and for freedom, and for the good that good government can do.