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Vol. 34, No. 3

Presidential bar leaders: Fascinating facts about America’s lawyer-presidents

by Norman Gross

With his historic election to the White House, Barack Obama became the 26th lawyer to occupy our nation’s highest office. But how many of these chief executives also served as presidents of bar associations? How many appeared as counsel before the U.S. Supreme Court? And if one were to assemble an all-star law firm from among these national leaders, whose names would appear on top of the firm’s stationery?

Bar association presidents

Given that America’s bar associations had their roots in the early 1870s, many lawyer-presidents had no opportunity to join, much less lead, such organizations. The two who did head bar associations—Benjamin Harrison and Wil-liam Howard Taft—assumed such positions after their U.S. presidential terms.

In 1896, Harrison became the first president of the Indiana State Bar Association. While his White House years were not notable, Harrison may have been the most accomplished lawyer to occupy the Oval Office. Following early years of practice that focused mainly on debt collection and divorce cases, his legal career later took off as he han-dled high-profile Indiana cases and 15 appeals before the U.S. Supreme Court. Much of this occurred after his U.S. presidency, at which time his legal services were not only widely sought, but well compensated, with Harrison’s fees reportedly averaging $150,000 a year.

During his year as ISBA president, Harrison encouraged steps to promote the administration of justice, one of the group’s founding objectives. In his speech at the bar’s first annual meeting in 1897, for example, he encouraged the selection of impartial judges, a strong bar response to “malicious assaults” on judges, and greater courtesies “be-tween court and counsel or between counsel.”

In 1913, but a year after his defeat for a second term in the White House, William Howard Taft became president of the American Bar Association. He was not the only distinguished ABA president during this period. Others in-cluded U.S. Secretaries of State and Nobel Peace Prize recipients Elihu Root and Frank Kellogg and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Charles Evans Hughes and George Sutherland.

Taft had the most diverse legal career of America’s lawyer-presidents. His resume included service as a city at-torney, superior court and federal circuit court judge, law school professor and dean, and the only American presi-dent to serve as U.S. solicitor general or chief justice of the United States.

During his term as president of the then-10,600-member ABA, the organization’s major initiatives included de-feat of the movement to recall both judges and judicial decisions, and continued efforts at promoting the uniformity of law among the states (a charter objective of the association). Of particular interest to Taft was streamlining the operation of the federal court system, an objective he would effectively pursue during his tenure as chief justice of the United States.

Supreme Court advocates

How many presidents argued before the highest court in the land, either before or after their presidency or both? Most people are surprised to learn that eight lawyer-presidents did so. In addition to Harrison and Taft, the advo-cates were John Quincy Adams, James Polk, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Grover Cleveland, and Richard Nixon.

Adams, the first to argue before the high court, appeared in five such cases, two of which were notable decisions. In the 1810 case of Fletcher v. Peck, the first time the Supreme Court declared a state legislative act unconstitu-tional, Adams represented the respondent. Thirty years later, he joined the defense of the Amistad captives in their appeal before the court. The case, rife with political implications and made famous in recent years by Steven Spiel-berg’s film of the saga, concluded with the Supreme Court ordering the captives’ release, finding them to be free men who were abducted and sold into slavery.

Interestingly, President Monroe nominated Adams for a high court seat in 1810 and the Senate confirmed the se-lection, all while Adams was serving as minister to Russia. Upon learning of the appointment, Adams declined, say-ing, “I am … too much of a partisan to be a judge.”

While Polk and Lincoln each argued a single case before the Court, Garfield appeared in a dozen such cases. In fact, his very first case was the landmark 1866 decision in Ex parte Milligan, in which the Court overruled the con-viction of Lambdin Milligan and four fellow Hoosier citizens who were tried and convicted by a military tribunal for conspiracies to further the Confederate cause. The Supreme Court ruled that the military tribunal could not try the defendants while civilian courts were in operation, a ruling that has been cited recently in conjunction with military trials of accused terrorists.

Cleveland’s appearance as counsel in the 1891 case of Peake v. New Orleans was notable because several justices on the Court, including Chief Justice Melville Fuller, were his appointees. Though both declined to recuse them-selves and ultimately supported the former president’s position, Cleveland lost the case for his clients, who were seeking payment for drainage warrants from the city of New Orleans.

The most recent lawyer-president to appear before the Supreme Court was Nixon, who argued the high-profile case of Time v. Hill in 1966. The genesis of the case occurred 14 years earlier when the James Hill family was held hostage for nine hours in their suburban Philadelphia home by three escaped convicts before being released un-harmed. Though the Hills assiduously avoided publicity about their ordeal, Life magazine later reported on a Broadway melodrama purporting to be a reenactment of the incident. The Hills’ resulting abuse of privacy case made its way to the Supreme Court where Nixon, though praised for his preparation and presentation, was on the short end of a 5-4 decision.

Lawyer-presidents all-star firm

In a multipart series that appeared in the ABA Journal 30 years ago, Harry Lambeth offered his selections of “an all-star law firm” from among the lawyer-presidents. His choices were John Adams, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Har-rison, and Martin Van Buren.

Harrison, noted Lambeth, may have been the best lawyer, one who possessed a “brilliant mind, extraordinary memory, unusual power of analysis, and great speaking ability.” Over 25 years of law practice, Harrison had many notable cases. Early in his career, in 1854, he helped prosecute a hotel employee charged with poisoning a guest’s coffee. Though having but an evening to learn about poisons, his successful cross-examination of expert witnesses carried the day in court.

More than a decade later, President Grant called upon Harrison to defend Grant and others in a civil damages suit that was brought by Lambdin Milligan after the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its landmark ruling bearing his name. Harrison, knowing the law was not an ally in the case, displayed his considerable oratorical skills in swaying the jury, which found for Milligan but awarded him a meager $5 in damages. And as noted earlier, Harrison gained even greater legal fame and fees after his failed 1892 re-election campaign against Cleveland.

John Adams excelled both as a practicing lawyer and legal scholar. Early in his legal career, he rode circuit throughout Massachusetts, including what is now Maine, quickly building the largest legal practice in his province. From his classical education, noted the editors of the Legal Papers of John Adams, “came the appreciation of law as politics, law as philosophy, and law as jurisprudence which so colored Adams’ later approach to the problems of his times … and their solutions.”

His legal scholarship and trial skills served him and the emerging nation well. His defenses in the Boston Massa-cre, John Hancock, and Michael Corbet trials are the stuff of history, as are his arguments for independence and con-tributions to the Declaration of Independence and the Massachusetts and U.S. constitutions.

Van Buren and Cleveland also had legal careers that spanned more than 20 years. While one might argue whether they earned a partnership in the “all-star law firm,” they certainly had distinguished legal careers.

Most of Van Buren’s career was spent in private practice. With a series of law partners—including future U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Butler—Van Buren developed a highly lucrative practice that included a large appellate caseload in which his success rate approached 90 percent. He also served as New York attorney general from 1815 to 1819, during which time he won 254 cases.

Van Buren had honed his legal skills at an early age, earning the moniker “Boy Lawyer” for his courtroom ora-tory as a teenage legal apprentice in Kinderhook, N.Y. One of nine children of a hardscrabble farmer, Van Buren had only a meager education, his legal training providing what one historian called “the principal discipline for his mind.” Even political rivals recognized his abilities. Said John Randolph of Virginia, “Give him time to collect the requisite information, and no man can produce an abler argument.”

Cleveland’s legal career is not as well known, in part because the Buffalo, N.Y., lawyer preferred practice outside of the courtroom. One of his trials, however, garnered his client a verdict of $274,000, then the largest award in western New York state, and another saw Cleveland volunteer his services in successfully defending Irish national-ists against charges resulting from their ill-fated invasion of Canada in the 1866 Battle of Limestone Ridge.

Cleveland was known as a forceful, deliberate, genial, knowledgeable, and indefatigable advocate. His law career included a stint as assistant district attorney and a series of law partnerships with such high-profile clients as Stan-dard Oil. As noted earlier, in between his presidencies, Cleveland argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Fol-lowing his second presidency, he was in demand as a referee in business disputes by fellow lawyers who appreciated his honesty and knew his decisions would be based on the law.

Lawyer Lincoln

As we close this 200th anniversary year of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, it would be inappropriate to omit a brief reference to his substantial legal career. Lincoln’s 25-year law career involved more than 5,100 cases, including hundreds of appearances before the Illinois Supreme Court and one before the U. S. Supreme Court. From his early days as a struggling lawyer in 1837, Lincoln’s legal reputation steadily grew to the point where he was representing railroads and other business interests before his election to the presidency.

Lincoln’s legal practice in many ways reflected his personality and character. William Herndon offered this description of his law partner’s approach to legal practice: “He had a keen sense of justice, and struggled for it, throw-ing aside forms, methods, and rules, until it appeared pure as a ray of light flashing through a fog-bank.” Others, including Judge David Davis, Lincoln’s riding companion on Illinois’ eighth judicial circuit and later his appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court, indicated that “The framework of his mental and moral being was honesty, and a wrong case was poorly defended by him.”

Lincoln’s strengths were in getting to the heart of the matter and being able to convey his client’s argument to the jury in a manner it could appreciate and understand. Lincoln performed best when he had time to prepare for a case.

Perhaps more than any other lawyer-president, Lincoln carried his legal background into his presidential administration. For example, his cabinet appointments were mainly lawyers, and when he sought their opinions, it often reminded one of a law firm partner seeking legal briefs from his associates. Moreover, the most notable public document of his presidency, the Emancipation Proclamation, was so carefully crafted that one historian derided it as having “all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.” Indeed, Lincoln’s concerns about constitutional challenges to the proclamation led him to draft a precise, legalistic document that, though lacking “moral grandeur,” delivered a his-toric blow to institutionalized slavery in the United States.

America’s 26 Lawyer-Presidents

John Adams (1797-1801)

Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)

James Monroe (1817-1825)

John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)

Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)

John Tyler (1841-1845)

James Knox Polk (1845-1849)

Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

James Buchanan (1857-1861)

Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)

James A. Garfield (1881)

Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)

Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897)

Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)

William McKinley (1897-1901)

William Howard Taft (1909-1913)

Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)

Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)

Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)

Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977)

William Jefferson Clinton (1993-2001)

Barack Obama (2009-)