Scholar Michael W. McConnell mixes law, religion

Published: Sunday, Jan. 9 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

"I was not an athlete," he said. "I ran JV cross country one year. It was very hard, and not very pleasant."

McConnell went to Michigan State on an academic scholarship. He double-majored in political philosophy and economics, eventually rising to become Opinion Editor of the university's 35,000-circulation student newspaper. During the summers, McConnell returned to Kentucky and worked as a reporter for his hometown newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal.

"I was really debating between law school and journalism as career paths," McConnell said. "But one thing I noticed while working at the Courier-Journal was that a number of the young reporters whom I most admired burned out and went to law school. So it occurred to me that maybe it was smarter to just go to law school from the beginning.

He applied to only two law schools, earning acceptance from both Yale and Chicago. He chose the latter primarily for two reasons: he found Chicago's economic approach to the analysis of law to be quite attractive, and Chicago offered him a significantly better financial package than Yale.

"I went to Chicago because I got a full-ride scholarship there," McConnell said. "(Yale) didn't offer me much money, and we were not a wealthy family."

It was while still at Michigan State that McConnell met his future wife, Mary. Near the end of Michael's law school, the couple married six days after Mary returned stateside from a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University.

After graduating from law school in 1979 McConnell served two prestigious clerkships, first for Judge J. Skelly Wright on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and then for Justice William J. Brennan Jr. at the U.S. Supreme Court. Thereafter McConnell burnished his Conservative credentials with a stint in the Office of Management and Budget early in the Reagan administration followed by two years as an assistant Solicitor General to Rex Lee, the future president of BYU.

"I worked with (Lee) very closely at the Justice Department," McConnell said. "He was truly one of the great lawyers of the 20th Century, just enormously intelligent and able to express ideas clearly and forcefully."

McConnell returned to Chicago Law School in 1985. From 1988-90, he additionally served on a part-time basis as one of three members on the President's Intelligence Oversight Board that held top-secret intelligence clearance and reported directly to the Commander in Chief.

In 1996 the McConnells, searching for a more family-friendly environment for their three young children, opted to leave Chicago and came to Salt Lake City.

"Unlike some non-Mormons in Utah, I find Mormon culture quite welcoming and attractive," McConnell said. "While there are some important theological differences, for us it's not an uncomfortable or unwelcoming environment. I'd rather have a people around who are involved in their religion and are interested in it."

While teaching at the U., McConnell developed close relationships with several of his fellow faculty. Debora Threedy, a contracts professor and scholar in feminist legal theory whose political views diverge from McConnell's, nevertheless became fast friends with both he and his wife because of a mutual affinity for hiking. Threedy and the McConnells maintain cabins in southern Utah near Capitol Reef National Park, and to this day they still get together and go hiking or have dinner when they're at their cabins.

"I think Michael's a very thoughtful and kind person," Threedy said. "He gives me hope that liberals and conservatives can find middle ground, because I'm very liberal and Michael is considered fairly conservative. Although sometimes I will disagree with him about how one should go about it, I think we both have the best interests of society at heart."

Even among his peer law professors, McConnell carried a reputation for exceptional intelligence and mastery of the law.

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