Michael Uhlmann: A Man in Full

Michael Uhlmann, my beloved friend and mentor, passed away early this week. “Rest in Peace” is a hopeless proposition in this case because as I write Mike is arguing with Saint Michael over the true scope of the Judicial Power of the United States, perhaps over Martinis. That has always been his idea of Heaven, as it is mine. Our Lord is casting a stern but loving eye.

In his youth Mike studied history at Yale, law at UVA, and government at Claremont Graduate School. He also hung with Murray Rothbard, Alan Greenspan, and like-minded libertarians and Randians, whose every discussion terminated in the conclusion that government per se is a criminal enterprise (not a bad first approximation, actually) and where the vexing question of how to supply public goods produced the answer that any public highway is a road to serfdom. Good fun, on Mike’s account. But he decided to return to our planet, to everyone’s great fortune.

Mike served under the Ford administration; did a stint working for Congress; played a lead role in the establishment of the first conservative public interest law firms; and did a brilliant job on the Reagan Administration’s transition team and then on the first Bush Administration’s transition. Eventually Mike had to earn money and became a partner at Pepper Hamilton & Scheetz, practicing administrative and antitrust law.

That’s when I met him, in the early 1990s. My little public interest law firm (the Center for Individual Rights) sublet office space from Pepper Hamilton, which had hit upon the brilliant strategy of making the lawyers’ lives yet more miserable by prohibiting smoking. (As Mike observed, we’re called Scheetz for a reason.) But we could still smoke in my office; and so we did. Most of what I know about American law-in-action comes from those afternoon conversations.

Now and then we repaired to The Palm, a high-priced lobbyist redoubt. The 300-foot walk consumed twenty minutes because Mike knew and conversed with every one of the then-numerous homeless persons on the street, dispensing advice and friendship: lay off the booze, say Hi to your daughter, how’s the job search going. Once he suggested that we should summarily detain the entire swamp menagerie at The Palm and let the homeless run the country. Perhaps we should have listened to him.

I’ve asked students of Mike’s at Claremont Graduate University, where he taught from 2002 onward, what they remember of him. A lot. One of them (bombshell from the OC and by her own telling slightly ditzy, pre-Uhlmann) recalled a meeting where she complained that her schedule was a mess and he says, “Honey, life is a mess. And that’s okay.” The meeting wasn’t traumatic, she avers. It just changed her life and helped her to become a responsible human being.

Uhlmann had that way. For several years we co-taught seminars on administrative law for incoming appellate and Supreme Court law clerks. One of our talks meets with blank stares and Mike shrugs (over drinks afterwards), “we’ve taught them the one thing nobody has told them but they need to know.” Like, what, Mike?

“They’re idiots. But they’ll learn.”

Many years ago—at a Liberty Fund conference, if memory serves—Mike and I stumble into each other at morning Mass at a church in New Orleans. Afterwards he takes me to a store that deals in antique books and prints (and of course, he’s buddies with the owner). I buy two priceless pieces: Christ on the cross, Christ risen. The bookstore is gone, courtesy of Katrina, and so now is Mike Uhlmann. But those prints hang over my dinner table. They picture the one thing that matters. Says our Faith. Remember that, you dumb Kraut. Urges Mike Uhlmann.

Miss you dearly, my man. And on second thought: do rest in peace.