Abner J. Mikva Collection
Abner J. Mikva was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Prior to entering college at the University of Wisconsin Mikva served in the U. S. Army Air Corps from 1944-45. Although he began college in Wisconsin, he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Washington University in Saint Louis in 1948. The same year, he began legal studies at the University of Chicago Law School. Mikva served as Chief Editor of the Law Review and graduated J.D. cum laude in 1951. He was admitted to the Illinois Bar that same year and worked as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sherman Minton from 1951-1952. He then entered private practice with Arthur Goldberg in Chicago from 1952-1968.
In 1956 Mikva ran for the Illinois State Legislature as a Democrat from Cook County. He served five terms from 1956-1966. During his legislative career he was Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee as well as other committees geared toward human rights, environmental improvements, ethics reform, and political reform. He helped enact new criminal codes, mental health codes, and prison reform. He was also interested in community development, employment, and addressing issues of poverty. Mikva, along with Paul Simon and others, pushed to pass labor and fair employment legislation. He and Simon co-sponsored the Fair Employment Practices Commission.
After a successful ten-year career in the State Legislature Mikva campaigned in 1966 for a seat in the 91st Congress representing Chicago’s South Side Hyde Park District. Mikva lost his initial bid for the Congressional seat to the incumbent and had to wait until 1968 to try again. His second run was a success and he was elected to the United States Congress as a Democrat in 1969 and served two consecutive terms. In 1972 the Hyde Park district boundaries were reapportioned by the Daley Machine, which left little chance of Mikva winning on the South Side against Ralph Metcalfe, a very popular black representative. Mikva moved his family to Evanston, a northern district that had not had a Democratic congressman in 90 years. Against the advice of mentor and former Senator Paul Douglas, he ran as a Democrat in the affluent and largely Republican district. Mikva lost the election in 1972 to Republican incumbent Samuel Young. He returned to private practice and became a visiting professor at Northwestern University School of Law from 1973-1975. He ran against Young once again in 1974 and narrowly defeated the incumbent. The next race was equally difficult, but he managed to win by a couple hundred votes and served two consecutive terms, ending in 1979.
Congressman Mikva served on numerous committees including the House Administration Committee, the House Judiciary Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee, and the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee.
President Carter appointed Mikva to the Appellate Court in Washington, D.C. in 1979. During his sixteen year tenure as a judge, Mikva wrote over 300 hundred opinions, several of which defended constitutional protection for free speech. His most controversial opinion centered on President Ronald Reagan’s attempt to deregulate U.S. industry without congressional approval. Human rights were paramount to Mikva and many of the cases he heard involved prison reform, employment discrimination, gun control, and other issues related to equitable treatment of citizens and upholding the Constitution. He became a chief judge in 1991 and was responsible for the regulation of judges’ discussions on important cases, organizing and attending judicial conferences, and other administrative duties such as recommending and hiring new judges. Judge Mikva worked with such notables as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. In 1994 President Clinton offered Mikva the position of Chief White House Counsel and he accepted. After a year as White House Counsel, Mikva retired from a long political career serving all three branches of government.
In retirement Mikva began a round of speaking engagements at various institutions and organizations. He continued to attend various conferences, conducted arbitration and mediation work, and took several foreign trips on behalf of CEELI and other legal groups. Having taught law courses throughout his political career, Mikva resumed teaching courses after leaving the White House. He became the Schwartz Lecturer at his alma mater, the University of Chicago Law School and served as the Senior Director of the Mandel Legal Clinic. Mikva announced his second retirement in Spring 2000. Since retiring for a second time, Mikva has remained active with mediation work, serving as a speaker for various organizations, and developing the Mikva Challenge Program that is geared toward teaching high school students about the political process.
The finding aid for the Abner J. Mikva Papers, 1950-2010, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library may be found at https://illinois.as.atlas-sys.com/repositories/2/resources/55.
Photographs in this collection include images of Abner Mikva throughout his career.
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- Illinois Photographic Collection
- Abner J. Mikva Collection