Follow Barack Obama prior and during his tenure as the 44th President of the United States. Read about my personal observations along with every day facts as they happen. This blog will only submit factual information about the first black President, now in his 2nd term of office.


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Monday, December 29, 2008

Article Reprint: from the Chicago Sun Times

December 17, 2007

BY ABDON M. PALLASCH Political Reporter/

OBAMA'S LEGAL CAREER He was 'smart, innovative, relentless,' and he mostly let other lawyers do the talking

The oratorical skills White House hopeful Barack Obama has shown on the stump -- and in his "There's not a black America and white America ... there's the United States of America" speech -- would seem to make him a natural for wowing juries.
So why did Obama never make impassioned speeches in court when he returned to Chicago from Harvard Law School in the early '90s to, as his Web site says, "practice as a civil rights lawyer"?
A review of the cases Obama worked on during his brief legal career shows he played the "strong, silent type" in court, introducing himself and his client, then stepping aside to let other lawyers do the talking.
Only once did Obama appear before the prestigious 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, where Judge Richard Posner is legendary for tearing into inexperienced lawyers. But Posner knew Obama as a fellow senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and kept his grilling polite. Obama never lost his cool, and he won the case.
Obama campaigns as a Harvard Law grad but never claims to match the courtroom skills of rival John Edwards, who won multimillion-dollar verdicts for his clients; or even of Hillary Clinton, whom opposing counsel remember as a formidable adversary during 15 years as a litigator at Little Rock's Rose Law Firm.
Obama admits he played a mostly behind-the-scenes role at his law firm, Miner Barnhill & Galland. He researched the law, drafted motions, prepared for depositions and did other less glamorous work during his three years full-time and eight years "of counsel" to the firm. Many trial lawyers spend their time similarly, part of a trend over the last 20 years of settling a greater percentage of cases before trial.
"I was an associate, and a lot of my work was in the research and writing," Obama told the Sun-Times on Sunday.
"I was one of the better writers. I ended up doing the more cerebral writing, less trial work," Obama added. "That's actually something I regret -- not doing more trial work."
"He wrote lots of substantial memos, but he didn't try any cases," said Judson Miner, a partner in the firm who was Obama's boss.
A search of all the cases in Cook County Circuit Court in which Obama made an appearance since he graduated from Harvard in 1991 shows: Zero.
His practice was confined mainly to federal court in Chicago, where he made formal appearances in only five district court cases and another five in cases before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- a total of 10 cases in his legal career. He was on the winning side of just about all those cases. Miner said there were 30 cases to which Obama contributed in some way.

Drove 'Motor Voter' victory

In 1995, former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar refused to implement the federal "Motor Voter" law, which Republicans argued could invite fraud and which some Republicans feared could swell the ranks of Democratic voters.
The law mandated people be allowed to register to vote in government offices such as driver's license renewal centers.
Obama sued on behalf of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. The League of Women Voters and other public-interest groups joined in.
"He and his client were the ones who filed the original case -- they blazed the trail," said Paul Mollica, who represented the League.
Transcripts show that at court hearings, Obama identified himself, then let Mollica begin speaking. Maria Valdez of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund sometimes spoke. The U.S. Justice Department joined in.
Letting the heavy-hitters at the Justice Department make the arguments appears to have been a sound strategy -- Obama's side won, even without him talking.
"Obama was involved to some extent in the legal work, but he was not the leader in actually litigating the thing -- Paul [Mollica] probably was the leader of the coalition and did most of the legal work," said David Melton, who represented Cook County Clerk David Orr. "Obama did have some expertise in certain constitutional aspects of the case."

He was just 'a young kid'

"Barack was a young kid when he came here," Miner said. "Senior lawyers are not going to be very deferential to Barack. He was not 'THE Barack Obama' yet." Obama was 32 in 1993, having entered law school at 27.
After Obama's side won in court, Edgar appealed. Obama's side won again -- without Obama talking. The lawyers then gathered in a small room in the courthouse to decide how to push the state to fix the problems.
"We had a raucous meeting shortly after the remand, and Barack was a very adamant spokesman for taking a very aggressive stance to try to repair the damage," Mollica said. "He's the one who put a charge in us that it was time to move and hold the state accountable."
Around that time, Obama announced he was running for state Senate and bowed out of the case.

Fought red-lining

Obama represented Calvin Roberson in a 1994 lawsuit against Citibank, charging the bank systematically denied mortgages to African-American applicants and others from minority neighborhoods.
"I don't recall him ever standing up and giving an impassioned speech -- it was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff," said Fay Clayton, the lead lawyer on the case.
"He was the very junior lawyer in that case," said attorney Robert Kriss. "He had just graduated from law school. I don't recall him being in court at any time I was there. I was the lead lawyer for Citibank and he was not very visible to me."
Kriss, Clayton and every other co-counsel and opposing counsel interviewed for this story praised Obama's legal ability, temperament and everything about his courtroom demeanor, even though, they agree, he didn't say much in the courtroom. Many are now donors to his campaign.
On Feb. 23, 1995, Obama billed 2 hours and 50 minutes for an appearance before Judge Ruben Castillo on behalf of his client, and also for reviewing some documents in advance of a deposition. That cost Citibank -- which ultimately had to pay the winning side's fees -- $467 at Obama's hourly rate of $165.
Miner commanded the higher rate of $285 an hour. During his appearance before the judge, Obama said he would need more time to file a response to a motion, and the judge agreed. That was all Obama said during the half-hour hearing.
His final bill on the case was 138 hours, or $23,000.
Obama had offers from more prestigious, higher-paying firms. But he chose to work for Miner -- former Mayor Harold Washington's counsel -- because of his firm's focus on civil rights litigation and community redevelopment.
Obama was also recruited in law school by developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who back then had a reputation as "a star" of the urban renewal movement in Chicago. More recently, Rezko was indicted for allegedly using his clout with elected officials to amass taxpayer funds for self-enrichment.
Rezko was a client of the Miner firm, and Obama worked on some of his redevelopment projects. Miner says Obama put in six to seven hours of work on Rezko projects. He has not produced detailed records of Obama's billings on the cases.
The firm was headed by Allison Davis, who eventually left the firm to become a developer of low-income housing himself, sometimes in partnership with Rezko. Obama worked on some of those projects.
Rezko and his friends have donated at least $168,000 to Obama's campaigns over the years.

'Nuances' over simple answers

During Obama's three years working as a full-time associate at Miner's firm, Miner noticed some of the qualities that have become known as his strengths and weaknesses on the campaign trail:
"As smart as he is, he is very quick to appreciate all kinds of nuances with legal issues," Miner said. "He finds it very hard to shoot back a real quick, simple answer. His instinct was to better understand what the nuances were."

Defending a whistleblower

In 1994, Obama went before the 7th Circuit to defend Ahmad Baravati, a trader blackballed by his bosses after he reported them for fraud.
An arbitrator awarded Baravati $60,000 in damages plus $120,000 in punitive damages against the former bosses.
They appealed, saying arbitrators don't have the power to award punitive damages.
Obama had a tough job because the same court had ruled a week earlier that an arbitrator could not award punitive damages. But Obama convinced them this case was different.
"You're suggesting that there's a federal common law that likes punitive damages, but this could be preempted by a state law that says 'no punitive damages,'" Posner told Obama.
"I don't think I'm saying there's a federal law that 'likes punitive damages,'" Obama responded, not dropping his tone of respect. "I think what I'm saying is that there's a federal law that likes the notion that the same remedies that will be available in court will be available in arbitration."
Obama won, and Baravati got to keep the extra $120,000. He still is grateful.
"I found he's a very smart, innovative, skilled, relentless advocate for his client," Baravati said. "When I met him, he reminded me of Abraham Lincoln."
After three years doing "first-rate" work as an associate, Obama was elected to the state Senate, and Miner offered to keep him on salary and let him open a Springfield branch of the firm.
"He's such an honest guy. On the third day, he calls me up, 'Jud, I'm not going to have any time here, so I don't want to take a draw,'" Miner recalled him saying.
So instead, Obama became "of counsel," working out of the office during the Legislature's summer breaks until he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Obama said he laments missing his chance to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court a case he had helped brief on behalf of a psychologist fired by Cook County for blowing the whistle on the county mis-spending a federal grant. Obama was launching his U.S. Senate campaign at the time. His firm won the case.


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