The day after Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990, he took a phone call from Sheryll Cashin, then a law clerk to Judge Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Mikva by then was a “feeder judge” for Supreme Court law clerks, and Cashin told Obama that Mikva was “very interested in you,” according to a new biography of Obama’s life before becoming president in 2009.
Obama’s response was quick and surprising, according to the book “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama” by historian David Garrow, also a Supreme Court expert. “I’m flattered, but no thanks. I’m going back to Chicago,” Obama told Cashin, now a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. “I was floored,” she said. Then, as now, a path to a Supreme Court clerkship was almost a default career plan for top-tier law students at Harvard.
Michelle Robinson, Obama’s future wife, was also surprised when he called her that day. “You’re not going to clerk for them? You’re kidding me,” the book quotes her as saying. “He’s like, ‘No, that’s not why I went to law school. If you’re going to make change, you’re not going to do it as a Supreme Court clerk.’”
The three current senators and four current justices who were once Supreme Court law clerks might disagree with Obama on that point. And it’s difficult to guess what Obama would be doing now if he had pursued the path not taken—would he be a Big Law rainmaker, senator, justice, a law school professor, or something entirely different? It is clear Obama’s answer to Cashin was a pivotal moment in his life and career.
The story of Obama’s rejection of the clerkship path has been told before. In the late 1990s when this reporter wrote about the dearth of minority law clerks at the Supreme Court, appellate judges talked about the African-American Harvard Law graduate who was a hot prospect but “got away.” It was Obama.
But Garrow’s book offers new details about the decision, including Michelle Obama’s reaction, and some possible explanations about why Barack Obama was so disdainful of the clerkship route.
When Obama headed the Harvard Law Review, he sent a copy along with his cover letter to Justice William Brennan Jr., first revealed in Garrow’s book. He told Brennan that a 1987 NPR interview of the justice by Nina Totenberg helped inspire him to become a lawyer. “I recall harboring considerable doubts,” Obama said. “I felt concerned that too often the law served the interest of the powerful and not the powerless. In the midst of my internal debate, I was fortunate enough to hear your interview.”
The Garrow book also offers several samples of Obama’s belief that political change, not judicial decisions, would make the most difference in improving race relations and helping the poor. Obama, along with fellow student Rob Fisher, wrote a lengthy paper for Harvard professor Martha Minow that criticized the belief that “the judiciary is the principal arena for social change.” They agreed that “the energy for change in race relations in in America will come from a bolder political vision … rather than a bolder legal theory.”
Following that view after graduating from Harvard in 1991, Obama worked at a Chicago civil rights firm, taught at the University of Chicago Law School, and then headed a get-out-the vote project. He was elected to the Illinois state Senate in 1996, beginning his climb in electoral politics that led him to the White House.
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