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Abner Mikva
White House Counsel

In office
October 1, 1994 – November 1, 1995
President Bill Clinton
Preceded by Lloyd Cutler
Succeeded by Jack Quinn
Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

In office
January 19, 1991 – September 19, 1994
Preceded by Patricia Wald
Succeeded by Harry T. Edwards
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

In office
September 26, 1979 – September 19, 1994
Appointed by Jimmy Carter
Preceded by Seat established
Succeeded by Merrick Garland
Member of the United States House of Representatives
In office
January 3, 1975 – September 26, 1979
Preceded by Samuel H. Young
Succeeded by John Porter
Member of the United States House of Representatives
In office
January 3, 1969 – January 3, 1973
Preceded by Barratt O'Hara
Succeeded by Morgan F. Murphy
Personal details
Born Abner Joseph Mikva
(1926-01-21)January 21, 1926
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
Died July 4, 2016(2016-07-04) (aged 90)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Political party Democratic

Abner Joseph Mikva (January 21, 1926 – July 4, 2016) was an American politician, federal judge, lawyer and law professor. He was a member of the Democratic Party. Mikva served in the United States House of Representatives representing Illinois's 2nd congressional district (1969–1973) and 10th congressional district (1975–1979). He was appointed as a United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by President Jimmy Carter, serving from 1979 to 1994. He served as the White House Counsel in 1994-95 during Bill Clinton's presidency. In his later career, Mikva taught law at University of Chicago Law School, Georgetown Law Center and Northwestern University. He mentored future President of the United States Barack Obama during his early years in law. In 2014 Obama honored Mikva with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Early life and family[]

Mikva was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the son of Ida (Fishman) and Henry Abraham Mikva, Jewish immigrants from Ukraine.[1] Mikva and his parents spoke Yiddish at home.[2] During the Great Depression, his father was often unemployed and the family relied on welfare.[2] Abner attended local public schools. During World War II, he enlisted and was trained in the United States Army Air Corps, but the war ended the day before he was due to be deployed.[2] Afterward, the GI Bill enabled Mikva to attend the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee[3] before transferring to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he met his future wife, Zorita Rose (Zoe) Wise. Both graduated in 1948 and soon married.[2]

The couple moved to Chicago, Illinois, where (as Zoe had urged) Mikva enrolled in law school[2] at the University of Chicago Law School. He received his Juris Doctor in 1951. The couple eventually had three daughters: Mary Lane (b. 1953), an Illinois Appellate Court judge in Chicago;[4] Laurie, who teaches at Northwestern University and is on the board of directors of the Legal Services Corporation; and Rachel, a rabbi and professor who teaches at the Chicago Theological Seminary.[5]

Political career[]

After graduation, Mikva clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton.[6] He also returned to Chicago and began practicing law, at a firm which became Goldberg, Devoe, Shadur & Mikva after he made partner. The firm handles labor, real estate, commercial and civil rights cases, as well as some criminal defense.[2]

Mikva as a U.S. representative during the 1970s

Nonetheless, his early interest in Chicago clearly was politics:

One of the stories that is told about my start in politics is that on the way home from law school one night in 1948, I stopped by the ward headquarters in the ward where I lived. There was a street-front, and the name Timothy O'Sullivan, Ward Committeeman, was painted on the front window. I walked in and I said "I'd like to volunteer to work for [Adlai] Stevenson and [Paul] Douglas." This quintessential Chicago ward committeeman took the cigar out of his mouth and glared at me and said, "Who sent you?" I said, "Nobody sent me." He put the cigar back in his mouth and he said, "We don't want nobody that nobody sent." This was the beginning of my political career in Chicago.[7]

He spent ten years in the Illinois House of Representatives[8] before serving in the United States Congress from 1969 to 1973 and 1975 to 1979. While in the House of Representatives, Mikva was part of the Kosher Nostra, a group of independent, clean Democrats that included future United States Senator and Presidential candidate Paul Simon, future Illinois Comptroller and candidate for Governor Dawn Clark Netsch, and Representative Anthony Scariano.

He first represented Illinois' 2nd District, which included the South Side's lakefront wards including Hyde Park, his residence and also home to the University of Chicago.[9] Both parties attempted to redistrict Mikva out of Congress.[10] It led to the redistricting for the 1972 elections putting Hyde Park in the 1st District,[10] for the first time since 1903. This would have pitted Mikva against Democratic incumbent Ralph Metcalfe in a nearly 90% black district; moving to stay in the 2nd District would have matched him against Democratic incumbent Morgan F. Murphy, who had previously represented the 3rd District.[11] Mikva instead moved to the North Shore's 10th District.

After he was defeated by Republican Samuel H. Young in 1972,[9] he successfully ran in the 1974 Democratic wave election and beat Young with 50.9% of the vote; his status was enhanced in the predominantly Republican, suburban district because he was viewed as critical of the Chicago Democratic establishment.[12] In 1976, he was narrowly re-elected by 201 votes against Young in a rematch that was one of the most expensive congressional races up to that time.[9] When he won by 650 votes in 1978 over future congressman John Porter, he joked to supporters that he had, "won by a landslide."

Federal judicial service[]

Mikva's official portrait as Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals

Mikva was nominated by President Jimmy Carter on May 29, 1979, to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to a new seat authorized by 92 Stat. 1629.[13] Despite opposition from anti-gun control interests that spent over $1 million to oppose his nomination, Mikva was confirmed by the United States Senate on September 25 and received his commission on September 26.[14] He then resigned his congressional seat (Porter succeeded Mikva after a special election). He served as Chief Judge from 1991 to 1994. His service terminated on September 19, 1994, due to retirement, after which he became White House Counsel to President Bill Clinton.[15]

During his 15 years as judge and four as Chief Judge, Mikva used his experience in the legislative branch as well as with the conservative Justice Minton, to craft his opinions. Mikva's most controversial decisions struck down the Pentagon ban against gays serving in the U.S. military (overturned on appeal by the circuit sitting en banc, but the ban was ultimately overturned by Executive Order), and in 1982 upholding regulation of air bags in automobiles.[2]

In 1992, while serving as Chief Judge on the D.C. Circuit, Mikva appeared in the Kevin Kline comedy Dave as "Supreme Court Justice Abner J. Mikva," in a scene in which he administers the presidential oath of office to the Vice President (played by Ben Kingsley).[16]

Post-judicial career[]

Mikva taught law at Northwestern University and was White House Counsel under President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1995, finding himself the oldest member of the White House team, and eventually resigning due to exhaustion.[2] He then returned to the University of Chicago Law School, serving as the Schwarz Lecturer and the senior director of the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. While at the University, Mikva came to better know future president Barack Obama, whom he mentored and supported politically. Obama awarded Mikva the Presidential Medal of Freedom on November 24, 2014.[17] Mikva offered Obama a law clerk position in his judicial office after Obama graduated from Harvard Law School, but Obama declined. Future Obama appointee and United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan did serve as one of Mikva's law clerks and was then a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.[18] Mikva also encouraged Obama to listen to preachers to understand public speaking, "listen[ing] to patterns of speech, how to take people up the ladders. It's almost a Baptist tradition to make someone faint, and, by God, he's doing it now."[18]

Mikva died under hospice care in Chicago, Illinois from complications of bladder cancer on July 4, 2016, aged 90.[19] He was also suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the time of his death.[20]

Other pursuits[]

Mikva served as a mediator through JAMS, and was co-chairman of the Constitution Project's bipartisan Constitutional Amendments Committee.[21] In November 2004, Mikva was an international election monitor of Ukraine's contested presidential election.[22] In July 2006, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich named Mikva chair of the Illinois Human Rights Commission.[23] In 2009, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn requested that Mikva lead a commission investigating the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign for admitting applicants[5] (many of whom were not very well qualified) whose relatives or backers had connections to and had donated money to Illinois state lawmakers.[5]

Mikva Challenge[]

Mikva and his wife Zoe started the Mikva Challenge, a civic leadership program for Chicago youth in 1997.[24] The organization now has chapters in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. It helps youth to expand their political desire by working as election judges, volunteering on campaigns, advising city officials, and creating local activism projects to improve their schools and communities.[24]

Legacy and awards[]

Mikva's congressional and judicial papers are archived at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.[25] In 1998, Mikva received the Chicago History Museum's "Making History Award" for Distinction in Public Service.[26] In 2016, Congress renamed the United States Post Office in downtown Evanston, Illinois after Mikva, who had represented Evanston as a congressional representative.[27]

See also[]

  • List of Jewish members of the United States Congress


  1. Stone, Kurt F. (December 29, 2010). "The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members". Scarecrow Press. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Loo, Jamie (April 26, 2015). "Abner Mikva: A public service triple crown". Chicago Law Bulletin. Retrieved March 19, 2016. 
  3. Lewis, Neil A. (July 5, 2016). "Abner Mikva, Lawmaker, Judge and Mentor to Obama, Dies at 90". The New York Times. 
  4. "Mary L. Mikva". 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Memmott, A. James (October 6, 2010). "Abner Mikva's many connections to the top". Retrieved March 19, 2016. 
  6. Trever Jensen (July 5, 2016). "Chicagoan Abner Mikva — lawmaker, judge, presidential adviser — dies at 90". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  7. Abner Mikva Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, April 12, 1999.
  8. "Abner Mikva". University of Chicago Law School. Archived from the original on November 13, 2007. Retrieved November 24, 2007. "He started his political career in 1956 in the Illinois House of Representatives, where he served five consecutive terms." 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Tim Moran (July 5, 2016). "Abner Mikva, Former U.S. Representative, Dies". Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 "Power to the people, back for another try". Chicago Tribune. April 30, 2015. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  11. Edward McCelland. "Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of the Black President". Google Books. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  12. "ABNER MIKVA DEAD AT 90; a long post worth every word". DuPage July 4, 2016. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  13. "Abner J. Mikva". Archived from the original on June 9, 2016. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  14. "Dissenting Opinion", University of Chicago Magazine, August 1996.
  15. Andrew V. Pistano (July 5, 2016). "Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Abner J. Mikva dead at 90". Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  16. A. James Memmot (July 5, 2016). "Abner Mikva's many connections to the top". Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  17. "President Obama Names Recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom". The White House. Retrieved November 25, 2014. 
  18. 18.0 18.1 Powell, Michael (June 4, 2008). "Barack Obama: Calm in the Swirl of History". The New York Times. 
  19. Emily Langer (July 5, 2016). "Abner Mikva, liberal titan of law and politics, dies at 90". The Washington Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  20. Neil A. Lewis (July 5, 2016). "Abner Mikva, Lawmaker, Judge and Mentor to Obama, Dies at 90". The New York Times. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  21. "The Constitutional Amendments Committee". Constitution Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  22. Brown, Mark (November 29, 2004). "Ukraine election shenanigans an eye-opener for Mikva". Chicago Sun-Times. republished at Retrieved March 19, 2016. 
  23. "Gov. Blagojevich appoints Judge Abner Mikva Chairman of the Illinois Human Rights Commission". July 26, 2006. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 "Mission & Vision". Mikva Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  25. Finding aid, Federal Judicial Center, Adam Mikva Archived January 18, 2012, at the Wayback Machine.,
  26. Neil Steinberg (July 5, 2016). "Abner Mikva, the original 'nobody nobody sent,' dead at 90". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved July 5, 2016. 
  27. Bookwalter, Genevieve (13 March 2017). "Evanston post office renamed in honor of Abner Mikva". Retrieved 7 April 2017. 

External links[]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Barratt O'Hara
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 2nd congressional district

Succeeded by
Morgan F. Murphy
Preceded by
Samuel H. Young
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 10th congressional district

Succeeded by
John Porter
Legal offices
Preceded by
Seat established by 92 Stat. 1629
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
Succeeded by
Merrick Garland
Preceded by
Patricia Wald
Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
Succeeded by
Harry T. Edwards
Preceded by
Lloyd Cutler
White House Counsel
Succeeded by
Jack Quinn

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