Twenty-one years ago Michael W. McConnell was an up-and-coming professor at the University of Chicago Law School writing a complicated article about the legal meaning of "free exercise of religion" for the Harvard Law Review. During the revision process a law review student editor left such an impression on McConnell that he convinced Chicago Law School to grant the student a faculty fellowship upon graduation.
"He was an unusually good editor," McConnell recalls. "He entered into the project in a way that I think helped me to make it a better article from the point of view of what I wanted it to be. He had some very intelligent organizational suggestions and was just very impressive."
The Harvard Law Review editor who caught McConnell's eye was Barack Obama.
"We had the opportunity of chatting quite a bit, and I knew he was planning to return to the south side of Chicago," McConnell said. "It just seemed like a natural (fit) to connect him with the law school."
In a vacuum, McConnell's interaction with Obama could seem somewhat extraordinary. But playing an integral role in the ascension of a future president of the United States cannot be considered mere coincidence when placed within the greater context of McConnell's career. Rather it's indicative of a pattern in the life of the former University of Utah professor, because time and again McConnell has demonstrated a propensity for gravitating toward interesting assignments and compelling individuals.
McConnell has held jobs in which he reported directly to superiors such as Rex Lee, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and for two years he even held top-secret military clearance. In 2001 George W. Bush nominated McConnell to the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals (one of a handful of appellate courts just below the U.S. Supreme Court), and after seven years on the bench he stepped away from the 10th Circuit to assume the prestigious directorship of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, a key position at one of the best law schools in the country. On two separate occasions in 2005 he was on the short list of candidates for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, and throughout his career he has argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court about issues like freedoms of religion and speech.
Along the way, McConnell, who is one of America's most important conservative thinkers, laid down deep roots in Utah. His family lived in Salt Lake City from 1996-2009; he taught at the U full-time from 1997-2002 and part-time thereafter until leaving for Stanford.
"When Michael left we lost one of our great intellects at the law school," said Paul Cassell, a professor at Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law and a former federal judge. "We have other (great intellects) as well, but Michael had a national reputation as one of the leading constitutional scholars in the country."
Faith dominates the intellectual landscape of McConnell's life. A devout Christian belonging to a Presbyterian congregation, he chooses from among five different translations of the Bible depending on the purpose of his study. He co-edited "Christian Perspectives on Legal Thought," published by Yale University Press.
As a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory board, McConnell brings judicial experience and razor-sharp legal expertise from a conservative, faith-based perspective that is nationally respected and sought after.
"I think that the greatest divide in American culture is not the difference between faithful members of one religion and another," McConnell said. "But rather, (it's) between all believers and those who are either indifferent or hostile."
The story of Michael McConnell begins in suburban Louisville as the younger of two children. His father was a chemical engineer, his mother a homemaker. He earned the rank of Eagle Scout and actively participated in his Christian church. During high school he propelled his debate team to a state championship and wrote for the school newspaper.
"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.
"One of the things that's amazing about Michael is his breadth of knowledge," Cassell said. "He's not just somebody who specialized in an obscure field of law, but he has command of a wide range of subjects. … You run into certain people in a lifetime that make you say, 'Wow, the wheels on that guy are just turning faster than anything I've ever seen before.' I've run into two people like that during my life — one is Justice (Antonin) Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court, and the other is Michael McConnell. On both the intellectual wheels turn so rapidly that it's a pleasure to watch them work."
In 2005, while McConnell was balancing the 10th Circuit with teaching part-time, a pair of Supreme Court vacancies arose. With his reputation as one of the country's preeminent conservative jurists and the same Republican president still in office who had nominated McConnell to the 10th Circuit, the national media buzzed about him being on the final list of candidates to replace Chief Justice William Rehnquist or Justice Saundra Day O'Connor. John Roberts and Samuel Alito, however, ultimately filled the vacancies.
"I would've loved to do it — I won't deny that," McConnell said. "But … I didn't get all bent out of shape. I know both John Roberts and Sam Alito, think very highly of them, and think that the President chose well."
Stanford approached McConnell in 2009 with an offer to become director of its Constitutional Law Center. With his window for a Supreme Court nomination likely having passed, he accepted the Stanford position and resigned from both the 10th Circuit and the University of Utah.
The McConnells are now empty nesters. They enjoy a close relationship their two Keeshond dogs and continue to avidly hike during regular visits to their cabin in southern Utah, where they recently spent Christmas with their adult children.
In addition to continuing work on freedom of religion, McConnell is working on constitutional issues involving the Federal Reserve Board and giving a lecture this winter at Harvard on the constitutional thought of the first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton.
"The work on the court was extremely rewarding," McConnell said. "But it's very demanding in the sense that the volume of reading and thinking about the cases is pretty much your life. Now I'm able to read and think and write about things of my own choice."