18-NOV CBA Rec. 46
Young Lawyer Journal
SPECIAL SESSIONS: ILLINOIS STATE SENATOR BARACK OBAMA
Kristyna C. Ryana1
Copyright © 2004 by The Chicago Bar Association; Kristyna C. Ryan
Barack Obama burst onto the national political scene this summer as the keynote speaker for the Democratic National Convention. Before gaining such high visibility in the national party, Obama was unknown to most of the United States, but he was not unknown in Illinois politics.
A graduate of Columbia University with a degree in political science, Obama worked as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago. He went on to Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude and served as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review.
After graduating from Harvard, Obama returned to Illinois and organized one of the largest voter registration drives in Chicago history to help Bill Clinton’s election campaign. He worked for Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland as a civil rights attorney and is a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.
In 1996, Obama was elected as the Illinois State Senator for the 13th District, where he has served for the past eight years. His most recent run for the U.S. Senate is not his first foray into national politics; Obama ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2000. Obama, who will be Illinois’ Junior Senator in Washington, kindly responded in writing to the following questions.
Q: The United States frequently bears the brunt of criticism for being overly litigious. Do you think there are too many attorneys in the United States, or do you think that increasing legal education results in a more informed electorate?
A: Though it may be true that we have too many lawsuits in some areas, I do not think that means that we have too many lawyers. We are too quick to malign and caricature lawyers, and we sometimes forget the good work that lawyers have done and continue to do. From Abraham Lincoln to Thurgood Marshall, lawyers have done a tremendous service to our society and, on occasion, even changed the world.
For me, legal education has always been about an exchange of ideas about the ideal for our society: how to create community and what obligations to impose on its members; how to achieve justice for the vulnerable and less fortunate in that community; how to reconcile our freedoms with our commitments to our community. There are, of course, competing visions and ideas about these issues. But in law school, you find people raising these important questions, discussing them, debating the facts and consequences. Through the process, there were times as a student and a professor where I observed that the discussion led the participants to reach areas of consensus. And I’ve always been encouraged by that, and I think it explains why those who have been privileged enough to obtain a legal education have played leading roles in our public life.
Q: More specifically, what would you do about escalating health care costs resulting from high judgments against doctors in the medical profession?
A: No one can deny that malpractice insurance premiums are going up — in Illinois and nationally — and making it too expensive for doctors to provide the care our citizens need in crucial areas. Something must be done, in both the short-and longterm, on a state and federal level. That is why I supported the medical malpractice reform bill sponsored by Illinois doctors in Springfield and why I want to go to Washington to fight for those reforms on a federal level. Any malpractice reform package must attack the problem at all levels — reducing frivolous lawsuits by cracking down on bad lawyers and shaky lawsuits, reducing insurance premiums by cracking down on malpractice insurance companies [that] are driving up doctors’ payments in order to make their own profits increase, and reducing medical errors by cracking down on bad doctors.
Q: What do you think is the most important responsibility of young lawyers, and what advice would you give young lawyers today?
A: I’m a strong believer in the idea that, at its core, the law is a profession in service of the public interest. I think what brings many students to the profession is this commitment to doing good, to justice and service, and I understand that it is sometimes difficult at the beginning of their careers to think about how to continue that commitment. I think whether young lawyers pursue public interest work directly in the non-profit or government sectors, or instead from the base of a law firm or corporation or in academia, there are many ways to serve.
So my advice to young lawyers would be to constantly look for ways to give back and to serve. Not only will their doing so do a lot of good for our communities, it will also enrich their careers. And it will go a long way toward improving that image of lawyers you asked about in the previous question.
*47 Q: Winston Churchill said, “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.” In mainstream American politics, our populous seems to be growing increasingly moderate. What do you feel are the roles of the liberal and conservative extremes in American politics?
A: I have said repeatedly that I am wary of labels. I think it is too easy to create caricatures of what it means to be liberal or conservative. And those caricatures do not always hold up to a closer scrutiny of the facts or of a person’s record. Moreover, I worry that they feed into the divisiveness and bitter partisanship that is afflicting Washington.
Your observation that the populous seems to be growing increasingly moderate, I think, reflects that there are shared values that unite Americans across political divides: we all want quality education for our children; access to healthcare, especially for the most vulnerable among us; good paying jobs. These common values cannot be reduced to easy labels, and I think we are witnessing a convergence in the electorate that shows that our nation is perhaps not as divided about certain core issues as some pundits would have it.
Q: It seems that young lawyers today do not have the desire or drive to help those less fortunate than lawyers in previous generations. Why do you think this is, and what do you think can be done to increase compassion in today’s young lawyers?
A: I think that the premise of this question is perhaps based on an unfair generalization. As a constitutional law professor, I have encountered many young lawyers who, I think, are just as passionate about using their degrees to do good as were my own law school classmates. I think what some see as disinterest may reflect a series of changes over the last few decades on several fronts. For example, the rising cost of legal education means that young lawyers are unfortunately saddled with debt approaching six figures when they graduate, forcing many to go into private practice and delay entering public service careers. But that does not, I think, mean that those lawyers are any less compassionate or committed to service.
Q: How should the United States go about balancing human rights and security? Are there constitutional rights which should be curtailed in this country to allow the government to fight the war on terror? Does the USA PATRIOT ACT adequately balance the two needs?
A: [The idea of] Freedom and equality for all under the law is among the core values that make this country great. We must protect these core values from attacks from both without and within. The war on terror should not be an excuse to roll back the fundamental rights on which our nation stands. If we sacrifice the rights to privacy and due process in the face of threat or attack, we are, in effect, sacrificing our democratic way of life. While I believe in ensuring that our intelligence and law enforcement officials receive the utmost assistance in *48 their efforts to keep us safe, such efforts can and must remain within Constitutional bounds. Never has the need for an independent judiciary been so clear. We must have judges who ensure that the Administration’s actions do not go unchecked. We must also guarantee the right of habeas corpus so that those judges can review unjust convictions and sentences.
I do not believe that the USA PATRIOT ACT strikes the appropriate balance between the goals of national security and civil liberties. While I believe the USA PATRIOT ACT made many reasonable and necessary changes in the law to ensure that law enforcement has access to expanded types of information, such as being allowed to intercept cell phone calls and not just land-based calls, [it] goes too far in violating our fundamental notions of privacy, thus seriously eroding the very ideals at the heart of our country’s greatness.
Two provisions underscore the USA PATRIOT ACT’s flaws. Section 215...allows law enforcement officials to compel people such as librarians and others to disclose evidence regarding third parties without the third party’s knowledge and without probable cause that the suspect has engaged in criminal activity. Another section provides for “sneak and peek” warrants, which enable searches to be conducted outside the presence of the person being searched and without prior or contemporary notice. Not only do such provisions violate our fundamental notions of privacy, but the lack of probable cause and notice requirements under Section 215 erode a cornerstone of our democracy — namely, that the actions of a sometimes overzealous and overreaching Executive Branch are subject to challenge by the target of governmental action. I would support the repeal of these provisions.
Q: How do you feel about the recent Supreme Court decisions in Rasul v. Bush and Hamdi v. Rumsfeld? Do you feel the Court has hampered the ability of our armed forces to prosecute the war on terror? Or, do you think that it has struck a blow for civil liberty and the rights of American citizens?
A: I think that the Rasul and Hamdi decisions reaffirm that our country remains a nation of laws, and not of men. In Hamdi, the Court ruled that American citizens detained in the United States as enemy combatants must be given a fair opportunity to contest the government’s claims before an impartial adjudicator. In Rasul, the Court held that foreign terrorism suspects detained by the United States at Guantanamo Bay have the right to challenge the legality of their detentions in court. I do not think that those decisions have hampered our ability to fight the war on terror, but merely reaffirmed our country’s long-standing principle that the government may not place any person beyond the reach of the law.
I understand the difficult circumstances in which we find ourselves today. Homeland security is one of our greatest and most important challenges, and we must be aggressive and vigilant to ensure that those who seek to commit violence against us are apprehended and brought to justice. I agree with the Supreme Court that there are very narrow circumstances [under] which a suspect should be detained for a specific and determined period — circumstances [under] which an immediate threat can be prevented as a consequence of information that [an] individual possesses. However, we must refrain from approaches that result in the wholesale suspension or denial of our rights under the guise of necessary wartime precautions. Any measures we take to assist or expedite our antiterrorist efforts must keep the Constitutional guarantees of our nation firmly in mind.
We must be sure that our treatment of those we detain conforms to the values of America and its military. We must be aware that we are high profile players on an international stage and that our treatment of those we detain informs the opinions and actions of those with whom we must work. We also must make sure that our actions regarding foreign detainees do not jeopardize the fair and humane treatment of American citizens who might fall into enemy hands, or our ability to demand that they be treated in line with international standards of justice.
Q: Which three projects do you think are of most importance to Illinois? What would you do to see them become a reality?
A: First, we must address the need for greater airport capacity in our state’s northeastern region. We must share economic growth throughout our region by modernizing *49 O’Hare, constructing a new airport near Peotone, and expanding operations at our existing regional airports like the Greater Rockford Airport. [Such changes would be] good for our national aviation system, as well as for interstate, and international, commerce. I will work in Washington to reconcile opposing views through respectful negotiation and principled compromise, as I so often did in my eight years in the Illinois Senate and in many years of community involvement before that.
Second, we must continue to invest in the infrastructure that is so vital to economic expansion. I will fight to ensure that Illinois receives its fair share of federal transportation money — including highway, transit, and highway safety funds. Specifically, we should invest in CREATE—a great example of a public-private partnership—which is needed to upgrade and improve the freight rail system in Chicago. This project will improve freight traffic, benefit Metra and Amtrak, contribute to cleaner air, and spark needed economic development along the five corridors. It could bring $3.8 billion in economic benefits and an annual 2,700 full-time construction jobs to the region.
A third priority of mine will be investment in research. Over the years, American business has prospered greatly from basic research funded by the federal government. Yet the current federal budget proposal would move us in the wrong direction, cutting research funding for 21 agencies — including the National Institutes for Health. At this critical time, when we’re facing so many challenges to our global economic leadership, I believe we must not lose our scientific and technological advantage to foreign competitors. Specifically, I will fight to maintain a steady stream of federal support for Illinois’ own Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory, work to make permanent the R&D tax credit, and champion funding to study innovative production techniques to find new uses for Illinois crops.
Kristyna C. Ryan is a Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Young Lawyers Journal of the CBA Record and a solo practitioner. She can be reached at www.kcryanlaw.com