by Nanya Springer.
Abner Mikva has led the sort of distinguished legal career that is often condensed into a list of prestigious positions and awards. Undeniably, this list is impressive; Mikva has commanded top positions in every branch of government. He was a five-term Illinois Congressman, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and White House Counsel for President Bill Clinton. He has been a law professor at the University of Illinois, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University. He has received the Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association, he was honored as a Legal Legend by the Chicago Lawyer Chapter of ACS, and on November 24, he will receive the nation’s highest civilian award—the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
However, merely listing Mikva’s accomplishments fails to communicate the true value of his contributions to the American legal and political landscape. The Presidential Medal of Freedom honors those who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” To understand how vital Mikva has been to ensuring a robust and healthy democracy, it is necessary to examine the issues he has championed during his long and esteemed career.
As an Illinois General Assembly legislator near the beginning of his career, Mikva pushed for fair housing laws and for reforms of the state criminal code. As a judge on the D.C. Circuit, he ardently defended free speech and consumer rights in his opinions, and he rejected the discriminatory Justice Department policy of expelling openly gay service members long before this view was politically popular. Throughout his career, Mikva consistently promoted issues concerning social justice and the public welfare.