As the tributes to Judge Abner Mikva flood in, they naturally focus on his outstanding public service. I’d like to share the difference he made in my life and career over the last 15 plus years and how Judge Mikva’s encouragement, support and involvement have been so critical to the ACS Chicago Lawyer Chapter over the years.
I arrived at the University of Chicago Law School in as an idealist, liberal, former campaign staffer. While there were certainly exceptions, by my 2L year, I was accustomed to what could seem like a non-stop barrage of rapid-fire law and economics, Socratic method, and rolled eyes whenever someone mentioned “fairness.” Walking into Judge Mikva’s Law of the Executive Branch seminar was a relief. First, he assigned certain parts of the room to be on call for particular classes, ensuring that the atmosphere immediately became less tense. Beyond that, the class was more like a fireside chat listening to your favorite uncle or grandfather share stories that made us feel we were somehow his equals and worthy of hearing his views on particular Supreme Court Justice’s poor poker skills, and the political realities behind his work on civil liberties, on freedom of speech, and so many other issues. I came to view his class as a weekly chance to exhale, to feel challenged intellectually in a fun and relaxed environment, and to remember that the legal profession was critical to the function of all three branches of our government.
I left his class grateful to have had the chance to learn from him and feeling as though I had a bit of my mojo back. (The next fall, following Judge Mikva’s advice, I took a class from another noteworthy professor, Barack Obama.) Later, when I worked as the dean of students at the University of Chicago Law School, I created and taught many programs, including co-teaching a class on appellate advocacy. In designing programs or a course, I thought back to Judge Mikva’s classroom and considered how I could best create that type of educational environment for my own students.
As dean of students, I also talked about Judge Mikva in my orientation speech, hoping incoming 1Ls might be inspired by his remarkable public service, and was also able to greet him when he returned to speak for the Law School’s ACS Chapter. His joy at talking to students was obvious, and he stayed and chatted with students long after the next class had started and we had run out of Diet Dr. Peppers and Diet Cokes for him. The last time I saw him at the Law School was in November of 2014, when he spoke in a fireside chat with the Law School’s then-Dean, Mike Schill. I was glad to see that he was still the same Judge Mikva, proclaiming, “I remain an optimistic liberal.” I often cite his remarks that day to disillusioned students and young lawyers, reminding them that if Judge Mikva could be involved in government service for decades, be fully informed on issues and events, and still retain his optimism (and liberalism) at 88, they can surely resist the temptations of cynicism during their 20s and 30s.
If that had been the end of my relationship with Judge Mikva, I would remember him fondly as a nice professor who told great stories, inspired me, and taught me about the importance of the learning environment.
But I also had the opportunity to collaborate with Judge Mikva through ACS. After I graduated, I helped found the Chicago Lawyer Chapter of ACS. Judge Mikva agreed to speak for our very first monthly program. Our attendance goal was 50 people, so we booked a private room at a Buca di Beppo and set up the room to look full regardless of turn out. Then people started showing up and kept coming until we had 135 people. Suddenly our little chat was an event. David Lyle used electrical tape to MacGyver a podium out of high chairs, we borrowed a sound system from a nearby law firm, moved the registration to the Pope-themed alcove to accommodate the long line, and lunch started late once they managed to scrape together some additional pasta. It was, to say the least, chaotic.
You wouldn’t have had any idea if you had seen Judge Mikva. He was excited about so many young people being there and jubilant that we had launched the ACS Chicago Lawyer Chapter with such a bang. Afterwards, as I was apologizing for the initial chaos, he made it very clear that the event was a rousing success and he would be back any time we liked.
Over the next few years when I was leading the Chapter, I tried to limit myself to only inviting Judge Mikva once a year, but I confess there were times I broke that rule. It didn’t matter what he spoke on, or whether he spoke on the advertised topic or something more interesting that had just come up in the news. Every time he was a delightful guest, a wonderful speaker, and always made us feel we were doing something important for the legal profession and for the country. He also always filled the much-larger rooms we eventually moved to at area law firms and law schools, and liked to remind me how far we had come as an organization from that first lunch. Whenever I speak to classes or groups, I always think back to that first ACS lunch and remember how kind Judge Mikva was in the midst of that crazy first event. When the sandwiches are tardy, the turnout is lackluster, or the room is locked, I always try to channel Judge Mikva’s graciousness in reassuring the host that they are surely the only person who notices the hiccups.
In the third year of the Chapter, Judge Mikva’s close friend Ron Miller suggested we start the Chicago Legal Legends Luncheon to honor luminaries of the Chicago legal community. I was convinced it was a good idea we didn’t have the bandwidth for, but since Ron (wisely) immediately noted that Judge Mikva would naturally be one of the first honorees (along with Judge Mikva’s dear friends Judge George Leighton, Newt Minow, and Dawn Clark Netsch), there was nothing to do but figure out how to create an annual luncheon. Never mind that the key potential sponsors had never heard of ACS, that nearly every ballroom in Chicago was booked for the selected day, or that the national staff was already stretched thin. Once Judge Mikva’s former clerks found out about the lunch, ticket sales started to pick up, Congresswoman Schakowsky agreed to speak, and all of the sudden it was a real event. (The 11th annual Legal Legends Luncheon is fast-approaching, so Ron was obviously on to something.) Judge Mikva always attended the later Legal Legends Luncheons when he could, and every year told me how proud he was of our Chapter, and that it was the best Legal Legends Luncheon yet.
Most recently, I was able to connect with Judge Mikva after a lunch in December 2015, when I told him that I was planning to leave my position as dean of students at the University of Chicago Law School. Judge Mikva told me that I shouldn’t be concerned about deciding what to do next, complimented me on new initiatives I had created at the Law School (and that I didn’t know he knew about), and reminded me that I had created the ACS Chicago Chapter. Most importantly, he told me that day – as he did many others regularly – that he was proud of me.
Maya Angelou famously said that “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Here was this incredible man who had accomplished so much — Congressman, Chief Judge on the DC Circuit, White House Counsel, founder of the Mikva Challenge, husband, father of three outstanding women. And he was proud of me. That is the thing I will remember most about Judge Mikva. Yes, he won a Presidential Medal of Freedom and every other major award, served in all three branches of government with distinction, maintained his optimism and faith in progressive values, and was a steadfast supporter of ACS nationally and locally. But through his pep talks and kind words, he made me and so many others feel we mattered. I, like so many others, will never forget how Judge Mikva made me feel.
-Amy Gardner, Founding Member of the ACS Chicago Lawyer Chapter, 7/5/16