Q: Did Barack and Michelle Obama “surrender” their law licenses to avoid ethics charges?
A: No. A court official confirms that no public disciplinary proceeding has ever been brought against either of them, contrary to a false Internet rumor. By voluntarily inactivating their licenses, they avoid a requirement to take continuing education classes and pay hundreds of dollars in annual fees. Both could practice law again if they chose to do so.
Have you seen this one? I couldn’t find a reference to it on your website. Can you debunk any of the following accusations?
Chain email: I knew they had both lost their law license, but didn’t know why until I read this.
This is legit. I check it out at https://www.iardc.org Stands for Illinois Attorney Registration And Disciplinary Committee. It’s the official arm of lawyer discipline in Illinois; and they are very strict and mean as hell. (Talk about irony.) Even I, at the advanced age of almost 65, maintain (at the cost of approximately $600/year) my law license that I worked so hard and long to earn. Big surprise.
Former Constitutional Law Lecturer and U.S. President Makes Up Constitutional Quotes During State Of The Union (SOTU) Address.
1. President Barack Obama, former editor of the Harvard Law Review, is no longer a “lawyer”. He surrendered his license back in 2008 in order to escape charges he lied on his bar application. A “Voluntary Surrender” is not something where you decide “Gee, a license is not really something I need anymore, is it?” and forget to renew your license. No, a “Voluntary Surrender” is something you do when you’ve been accused of something, and you ‘voluntarily surrender” your license five seconds before the state suspends you.
2 Michelle Obama “voluntarily surrendered” her law license in 1993. after a Federal Judge gave her the choice between surrendering her license or standing trial for Insurance fraud!
3. So, we have the first 1/2 black President and First black Lady – who don’t actually have licenses to practice law. Facts. Source: http://jdlong.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/pres-barack-obama-editor-of-the-Harvard-law-review-has-no-law-license/
4. A senior lecturer is one thing, a fully ranked law professor is another. Barack Obama was NOT a Constitutional Law Professor at the University of Chicago.
5. The University of Chicago released a statement in March 2008 saying Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) “served as a professor” in the law school-but that is a title Obama, who taught courses there part-time, never held, a spokesman for the school confirmed in 2008.
6. “He did not hold the title of Professor of Law,” said Marsha Ferziger Nagorsky, an Assistant Dean for Communications and Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago School of Law.
7. The former Constitutional Senior Lecturer (Obama) cited the U.S. Constitution the other night during his State of the Union Address. Unfortunately, the quote he cited was from the Declaration of Independence … not the Constitution.
8. The B-Cast posted the video: http://www.breitbart.tv/did-obama-confuse-the-constitution-with-the-declaration-of-independence/
9. Free Republic: In the State of the Union Address, President Obama said: “We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we are all created equal.
10. Um, wrong citing, wrong founding document there Champ, I mean Mr. President. By the way, the promises are not a notion, our founders named them unalienable rights. The document is our Declaration of Independence and it reads:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
11. And this is the same guy who lectured the Supreme Court moments later in the same speech?
When you are a phony it’s hard to keep facts straight.
Keep this moving — educate others.
We briefly addressed rumors about the status of the Obamas’ law licenses back in January 2010 in an Ask FactCheck titled “Clueless ‘Columbo.’ ” But a steady stream of questions about them has continued to flow to our inbox ever since.
It’s true that neither the president nor the first lady holds an active license to practice law. A search on the website of the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois shows that Barack Obama is listed as “voluntarily retired and not authorized to practice law,” and Michelle Obama is listed as “voluntarily inactive and not authorized to practice law.”
But it’s not true that President Obama “surrendered his license back in 2008 in order to escape charges he lied on his bar application,” or that Michelle Obama “ ‘voluntarily surrendered’ her law license in 1993 after a Federal Judge gave her the choice between surrendering her license or standing trial for Insurance fraud,” as the chain email claims.
Lawyers who voluntarily change their registration status to inactive or retired “may not practice law based upon their Illinois license or hold themselves out as being so authorized,” according to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois. But James Grogan, deputy administrator and chief counsel for the ARDC, said that the Obamas were “never the subject of any public disciplinary proceedings.”
President Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991 and was admitted as a lawyer by the Supreme Court of Illinois on Dec. 17, 1991. Prior to being elected to the Illinois state Senate in 1996, he worked as a civil rights lawyer at the firm formerly known as Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland. Four days after Obama announced that he would run for president in February 2007, he voluntarily elected to have his law license placed on “inactive” status, according to Grogan. Then, after becoming president, he elected to change his status to “retired” in February 2009.
Michelle Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1988, and was admitted as a lawyer by the Supreme Court of Illinois on May 12, 1989. Following graduation, she joined Sidley Austin, a corporate law firm in Chicago. But a few years later, in 1994, while working for the Public Allies project in Chicago, Obama voluntarily had her license placed on “inactive” status.
But the claim that the Obamas “surrendered” their licenses to avoid ethics charges has no basis in fact. Neither of the Obamas has any public record of discipline or pending proceedings against them, according to the online public registration records of the ARDC. We also confirmed that with Grogan, who said that the Obamas were “never the subject of any public disciplinary proceedings.”
The Obamas haven’t said exactly what prompted them to change the status of their licenses. But Grogan said that it was fairly common for lawyers who didn’t intend to continue practicing law to go on inactive status. It was actually one of the reasons, he said, that the rule was changed so that lawyers wanting to switch to inactive status no longer had to petition the Illinois Supreme Court to do so. In 2011, more than 12 percent of the state’s 87,943 registered attorneys were on inactive status (see Chart 2), according to the ARDC’s annual report for that year.
In addition, prior to June 5, 2012, the Obamas would have been required to pay an annual fee of $289 (now $342), and take classes to satisfy the state’s Minimum Continuing Legal Education requirement, in order to keep their licenses active. Lawyers on retirement status, however, don’t have to pay an annual fee or take classes. And lawyers on inactive status also don’t have to take classes, but they do have to pay an annual fee of $105.
Perhaps one reason for these false claims is that the online registration record used to list Michelle Obama as being “on court ordered inactive status.” But that wasn’t because of any wrongdoing. As previously mentioned, before 1999, an Illinois Supreme Court rule required active lawyers who wanted to change their registration status to do so by petitioning the court.
ARDC website: Prior to November 1, 1999, former Supreme Court Rule 770 provided for a proceeding in the Court for any voluntary transfer to inactive status, whether because of some incapacitating condition or solely as a matter of the lawyer’s preference because the lawyer would not be practicing law.
Obama’s motion seeking a transfer to inactive status was filed on June 8, 1994. And the court granted the request the following month, Grogan said.
Grogan said claims that Michelle Obama went on inactive status to avoid disbarment are simply false. “We had to consent to this,” he said, noting that the ARDC would’ve brought up any disciplinary problems with the court. And he added that simply changing the registration status wouldn’t prevent the ARDC from bringing a case against a lawyer.
(The online registration record no longer refers to Michelle Obama as being on “court ordered inactive status.” Grogan said that changes were made to the online registration system because other inactive lawyers had complained that they were also being suspected of wrongdoing.)
And the Obamas could return to practicing law if they decide to, Grogan said. President Obama would have to submit a written or online notification stating that he intended to return to active status. And he would have to pay the registration fee for each year that he was retired.
The process for Michelle Obama would be different, Grogan said, because she changed her status under old Supreme Court Rule 770. She would have to once again file a motion with the Illinois Supreme Court requesting to be transferred back to active status. But unlike President Obama, she would only have to pay the registration for the year that she requested to return to active status.
The email also claims that “Barack Obama was NOT a Constitutional Law Professor at the University of Chicago.” That’s technically true.
As we wrote back in 2008, Obama’s formal title was “senior lecturer,” but the University of Chicago Law School says he “served as a professor” and was “regarded as” a professor.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama regularly referred to himself as “a constitutional law professor.” But the university later clarified his title in an official statement:
UC Law School statement: The Law School has received many media requests about Barack Obama, especially about his status as “Senior Lecturer.” From 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, Barack Obama served as a professor in the Law School. He was a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996. He was a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004, during which time he taught three courses per year. Senior Lecturers are considered to be members of the Law School faculty and are regarded as professors, although not full-time or tenure-track. The title of Senior Lecturer is distinct from the title of Lecturer, which signifies adjunct status. Like Obama, each of the Law School’s Senior Lecturers have high-demand careers in politics or public service, which prevent full-time teaching. Several times during his 12 years as a professor in the Law School, Obama was invited to join the faculty in a full-time tenure-track position, but he declined.
The email also faults Obama for mixing up the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
“The former Constitutional Senior Lecturer (Obama) cited the U.S. Constitution the other night during his State of the Union Address. Unfortunately, the quote he cited was from the Declaration of Independence … not the Constitution.”
But whether Obama was right or wrong depends on how his words are interpreted.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 27, 2010, Obama made the following statement:
Obama, Jan. 27, 2010: Abroad, America’s greatest source of strength has always been our ideals. The same is true at home. We find unity in our incredible diversity, drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we’re all created equal; that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it; if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else.
However, the exact phrase “created equal” is not found in the U.S. Constitution. It is found in the Declaration of Independence:
Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
But Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at UCLA, writing for the Volokh Conspiracy blog, said that the president was actually correct.
Volokh, April 5, 2010: But of course President Obama’s statement is quite correct: The Constitution enshrines the notion that we are all created equal in the Equal Protection Clause, in the voting rights amendments, chiefly the Fifteenth Amendment and the Nineteenth Amendment, and in large measure in the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. (And don’t quibble that these are Amendments, and not the Constitution. As Article V of the Constitution says, the Amendments “shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution.”)
— D’Angelo Gore
Grogan, James, deputy administrator and chief counsel for the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois. Interview with FactCheck.org. 6, 11, 12 Jun 2012.
Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois. Lawyer Search. Accessed 6 Jun 2012.
Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois. Lawyer Registration. Accessed 6 Jun 2012.
Supreme Court of Illinois. “Illinois Supreme Court Increases Registration fees for Attorneys to Help Fund Legal Services for Poor.” Press release. 5 Jun 2012.
Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Illinois. Annual report for 2011. 24 Apr 2012.
Schilling, Chelsea. “What happened to Michelle Obama’s law license?” WorldNetDaily.com. 4 Aug 2009.
Jackson, Brooks. “Clueless ‘Columbo.’ ” FactCheck.org. 18 Jan 2010.
Morain, Dan. “Obama’s law days effective but brief.” Los Angeles Times. 6 Apr 2008.
Marek, Lynne. “The ‘other Obama’ honed her skills at Sidley Austin.” National Law Journal. 25 Jun 2008.
Miller, Joe. “Obama a Constitutional Law Professor?” FactCheck.org. 28 Mar 2008.
White House. “Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address.” Press release. 27 Jan 2010.
Declaration of Independence. 4 Jul 1776.
Volokh, Eugene. “Massive Problems with Anti-Obama Allegations That Have Been Making the Rounds Recently.” Volokh Conspiracy Blog. 5 Apr 2010.