He’s considered a conservative, but those who know Mike Lee best know he is also something of a wild card. Led by a lifelong devotion to the United States Constitution, to which he pays tribute in his recent book, Our Lost Constitution: The Willful Subversion on America’s Founding Document, Lee has forged unlikely alliances in the pursuit of causes that are informed more by the letter of the law in that document, than by politics.
“My colleagues are no longer surprised to learn that I care about things that are not universally identified as things conservative Republicans side for,” says Lee, United States senator from Utah since 2011, and, from 1999 to 2002, an associate at Sidley’s Washington office, specializing in appellate and Supreme Court litigation. He had returned to the firm after being a summer associate two years earlier.
By way of example, the senator recalls a transformative moment in 2004 when he served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the district of Utah. A man had come before the court for selling a small quantity of marijuana on three separate occasions over a 72-hour period. That, combined with having possession of a gun, placed the accused squarely in the path of rather harsh sentencing guidelines. He was ultimately sentenced to 55 years in prison, more than some perpetrators of terrorism, kidnapping and rape.
Lee recalls that the federal judge in the case made the unusual decision to issue an opinion that disagreed with the sentence, though he conceded that he did not have discretion to depart from it. “I still have echoing in my mind the words of that judge when he was imposing it,” said Lee. “‘Only congress can fix this problem.’”
The experience led Lee in 2013 to the office door of Dick Durbin of Illinois, one of the most liberal democratic senators in congress. This is all the more intriguing considering that Lee, in his formative years, clerked for none other than one of the most conservative Supreme Court justices, Samuel Alito, while he served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Court. He had actually seen Carter Phillips, current chairman of the firm’s executive committee, argue before the court on a number of occasions during that time. Durbin and Lee are now co-sponsors of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, an effort to reform the federal criminal justice system.
“I’m very excited about it. It undertakes some really significant reforms in the areas of minimum mandatory sentences,” said Lee, who counts his time at Sidley as crucial to enhancing his ability to craft such legislation.
“I worked with some of the best lawyers in the country while I was at Sidley—men and women who truly understand how our government works. And that has helped in every job I have had since then, including here in the Senate,” Lee says.
While the sentencing reform bill is still pending—some of his colleagues, leery of being considered soft on crime, haven’t yet signed on—Lee met with success last year with a bill co-sponsored by another unlikely bedfellow. He and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) drafted legislation to end the government’s dragnet collection of phone records under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act.
The bill took aim at so-called “bulk telephone metadata,” which in effect collected intimate details from people’s phone calls—for example, their age, marital status, health condition, hobbies and political affiliation—all in the name of intelligence gathering to protect Americans’ safety.
“These are things that are, frankly, none of the government’s business,” said Lee. “I believe it is just wrong for the federal government to maintain a database with every American’s calling data without any requirement that it demonstrate that these phone records have any connection to a phone number that was identified with a terrorist network.”
Lee concedes the country faces significant security threats, both foreign and domestic. He laments our national debt of about 19 trillion as unsustainable. “We’ve got a lot of things to worry about,” he said, “but I am motivated. I’m inspired by a couple things. I’m confident that as we restore and reinvigorate the constitution’s protections that we will benefit to a significant degree.”
He says he also finds comfort and encouragement from a statement attributed to former prime minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill: “The American people can always be counted on to do the right thing after they have exhausted every alternative.”
Published October 2016
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