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.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on October 11, 2019 at 08:37:19 am

How blessed you both are to be such good friends! I only knew Mike briefly and spoke with him on two occasions. The first was in 1971 when I was expecting our third child. I wrote a long letter to a number of Senators and Congressmen about federal impact on education trends. Mike, as aide to Senator Buckley actually READ this letter and invited me to come down and have lunch with him and talk about it and meet Sen. Buckley. He encouraged me. He was so kind. Years later I saw Mike again when I was launching a parent/teen chastity program in the Diocese of Arlington. He actually took the time to come and give support! Our common ground was that I had been drawn out of liberalism by Willmore Kendall in an American Political Theory class at Georgetown Graduate School of Govt. in 1962 and he talked to me about his great professors. Thank you so much for this wonderful tribute to a great man.

read full comment
Image of Onalee McGraw
Onalee McGraw
on October 11, 2019 at 09:05:09 am

Mike was a wonderful man and a great participant in the early revival of the libertarian conservative movement and the Reagan revolution . Yes RIP and thanks Professor Greve for the nice remembrance.

read full comment
Image of Donald Devine
Donald Devine
on October 11, 2019 at 09:26:50 am

This is a wonderful tribute, thank you.
Mr. Grieve, we met one in 2005 at St Mary’s Law School in San Antonio. I remember it well because only I and one other person showed for your talk to the Christian Legal Society. Had a great time talking about one of your books I had read.
Dan Lowenberg, St Mary’s Law class of ‘05

read full comment
Image of Daniel Lowenberg
Daniel Lowenberg
on October 11, 2019 at 10:08:57 am

Beautiful tribute.

read full comment
Image of David R. Henderson
David R. Henderson
on October 11, 2019 at 10:16:42 am

I first met Mike at a FedSoc event in 2014. We became friends and never passed up an opportunity (usually at APSA conferences) to meet over drinks and dinner. He was funny and wise, and he knew where all the bodies were buried in D.C. Mike was truly a happy warrior. I last heard from him in late August, when I learned that he had begged off the APSA conference due to illness. I told him I'd pray for him. His last words to me were, "Best medicine of all. Grazie mille."

Mike, a thousand thanks to you could not adequately express my feelings. Rest in peace, my friend.

read full comment
Image of Lou Bradizza
Lou Bradizza
on October 11, 2019 at 10:32:01 am

Beautiful (and moving) tribute.

read full comment
Image of Mark Pulliam
Mark Pulliam
on October 11, 2019 at 10:48:16 am

That is a touching tribute Lou, and echoes my sentiment completely. He always ended our phone conversations with a "God bless", and I know he meant it.

I know for a fact that he was also a reader of this very blog, Law and Liberty, because he emailed me one time about an exchange I had gotten in here. He would have appreciated Greve's tribute, and all of these. AMDG

read full comment
Image of CJ Wolfe
CJ Wolfe
on October 11, 2019 at 14:24:16 pm

An excellent eulogy. All of it is vintage Uhlmann.

read full comment
Image of David Frisk
David Frisk
on October 11, 2019 at 14:25:35 pm

"a happy warrior" -- precisely.

read full comment
Image of David Frisk
David Frisk
on October 11, 2019 at 17:59:17 pm

Mike Uhlmann was a virtuous man who marked a path for others to the uplands of belief, faith, and helping one's friends, and never forgetting an enemy. He even crossed the Strassina Continental Divide. He straddled many worlds, and now has his home in the one he loved the most.

Thank you for your righteous remembrance.

read full comment
Image of Philip Marcus
Philip Marcus
on October 11, 2019 at 21:46:54 pm

Just beautiful Michael. Thank you for allowing us to share these memories with you.

read full comment
Image of Garrett Snedeker
Garrett Snedeker
on October 13, 2019 at 10:29:27 am

Michael was of course correct, "Life is a mess..." And so are the affairs too often in our Republic, to wit, today. And Michael Uhlmann would have said to his students and us his friends, "... but it is our Republic, and our work is to sustain it!" This was his life in public. In private, it was sustaining his faith.

read full comment
Image of Michael C Maibach
Michael C Maibach
on October 14, 2019 at 11:09:53 am

Thank you so much for such a wonderful tribute to my father. Our family appreciates it. He will be missed dearly.

read full comment
Image of Rachael Burrows
Rachael Burrows

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.