Abner Mikva’s many connections to the top

By A. James Memmott

October 6, 2010 at 11:02am

Writing in The New York Times, Adam Liptak refers to retired federal judge Abner J. Mikva as “the Zelig of the American legal scene.”

The description rings true, though in some ways Mikva is so well-connected that he makes Zelig seems like something of a recluse.

Mikva, 84, wasn’t just a key player in judicial circles. He also was a legislative power as a member of Congress. And he was White House counsel in the Clinton administration.

Not to be outdone by Woody Allen’s Zelig, Mikva even had a part in a movie, playing himself in Dave, the 1993 film starring Kevin Kline as an accidental president.

Liptak mentioned Mikva in his recent column on the new, and very-long-awaited, biography of Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. Twenty four years ago, Mikva introduced Brennan to the man who became his biographer, reporter Stephen W. Wermiel.

Abner J. Mikva
Abner J. Mikva

At the time, Mikva was in at least his third career, serving as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Appointed to the Court of Appeals by Jimmy Carter in 1979, Mikva was often mentioned as a possible Supreme Court justice. He never got that appointment, but, on his recommendation, 24 of his law clerks went on to clerk at the Supreme Court.

Mikva proteges include Julius Genachowski, who is now chairman of the Federal Communications Commissions, and Elena Kagan, the newest Supreme Court Justice.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1986, Kagan clerked for Mikva before clerking for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Mikva later championed Kagan for a spot on the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School, his alma mater.

And he convinced Kagan to join him at the Clinton White House, where he served as the president’s counsel from 1994 to 1995, having given up his lifetime appointment as a federal judge.

At the Supreme Court, Kagan serves with three of Mikva’s former colleagues from the Court of Appeals, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Mikva has own connection to the Supreme Court, as well, having clerked there for Justice Sherman Minton during the 1951-52 term after his graduation from the University of Chicago.

There’s a family link, too, as Mary Lane Mikva, one of Mikva’s three daughters, clerked for Brennan during the 1981-82 term. (She’s now a circuit court judge in Chicago.)

Before he was a judge, Mikva, a Democrat, was active in politics, counting among his mentors Adlai Stevenson, the Illinois governor who ran twice for president, and Illinois Sen. Paul Douglas.

A veteran of World War II, Mikva served 10 years in the Illinois House of Representatives. He then was a member of the U.S. House from Illinois, serving from 1969 to 1973 and from 1975 to 1979.

He became known as a strong supporter of gun control, a stand that drew the ire of the National Rifle Association and caused some confirmation problems after he was nominated to the federal bench.

After stepping down as White House counsel in 1995, Mikva joined the faculty at Chicago Law. One of his younger colleagues there was Barack Obama, who taught from 1992 to 2004.

While he was a federal judge, Mikva had offered Obama a clerkship but Obama turned him down. “I thought this guy really has brass,” Mikva told the Times. The rejection aside, Mikva became a friend and political adviser to Obama.

Last year, Illinois Gov. Patrick J. Quinn appointed Mikva, who is retiring from teaching, to head a commission looking into the admission of some students by the University of Illinois because of their political connections.

Mikva and his wife, Zoe, started the Mikva Challenge in 1997, an effort to encourage young people to become involved in the political process.

The Mikvas have two other children in addition to their daughter Mary. Laurie Ida Mikva, an attorney, was appointed to the Legal Services Corporation by Obama last year. Rachel S. Mikva is a rabbi and a professor of Jewish studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary.

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