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Professor Nick Johnson

(An ABA 2005 Ross Essay Contest entry)

Christopher Bunce

American Bar Association, ABA Journal e Report

Volume 4, Issue 21

May 27, 2005

"Are you here to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, or widen it?" Every fall, professor Nicholas Johnson attends the University of Iowa College of Law picnic and asks new students the same question. In 1993, I answered without missing a beat: "Well, narrow it, of course." There was no right answer, but he knew—and I would learn—if you hadn’t figured out where you stood, you probably shouldn’t have taken the LSAT in the first place.

Nick Johnson is known internationally as a public interest advocate, nationwide as a dedicated public servant, statewide as a noted educator, and locally as an active citizen of Iowa City. He has been a U.S. Supreme Court law clerk, a Senate candidate, head of the U.S. Maritime Administration, and the famous "dissenting commissioner" of the Federal Communications Commission under President Lyndon B. Johnson. He’s even graced the cover of Rolling Stone. But that’s just the man on paper.

In his classes, Nick stressed the importance of the broad "marketplace of ideas" envisioned by the Federal Communications Act. He believed that the more voices in that marketplace, the better for everyone. His passion for freedom, diversity and community service rekindled the excitement I’d felt as a kid in civics class.

Our friendship grew when I became his research assistant. Outside of class, Nick was just as generous with his time and ideas. He took my wife and me to concerts, restaurants and political rallies. Nick welcomed lively discussions with anyone, never distancing himself from his students. During the O.J. Simpson trial, he took me to the professors’ exclusive lounge to watch coverage. "Have a seat," he said. I received some frowns from the other professors, but it never occurred to Nick I was on terra incognito.

Nick taught me life lessons: All you need to get around is a good bicycle or an old VW. Tuna and salsa on toast makes a good cheap lunch. Professionally, he shared what he’d learned from the likes of Justice Hugo Black. Nick described a party where Justice Black was asked a legal question. Black pulled a tattered copy of the Constitution from his pocket. He wasn’t above thumbing through it to quote directly from the text. The message? Law isn’t something you leave at the office. Good lawyers are lawyers 24/7. We take oaths to uphold the Constitution. Justice Black literally kept his guiding document within arm’s reach—even after hours. Someone who didn’t take his office seriously wouldn’t do that—a good message from my mentor’s mentor.

Nick’s influence was key to my career. When I asked him to be a professional reference, he suggested I reconsider. "I still have some critics out there," he said, referring to his progressive reputation and his opinions on the FCC. I appreciated the warning, but I wouldn’t work for anyone who saw association with Nick as a bad thing.

That reference landed me my first job. After committing to finish a project before finals, I pushed my books aside and spent a weekend working for Nick instead. "What about finals?" Nick asked on Monday. "I told you I’d get it done," I said. I had an interview that afternoon. The general counsel of a small telecommunications company had approached Nick for recommendations, and Nick relayed the story of what I’d done. I was offered the job, launching my career as a telecom lawyer.

Every day I see how the imbalance between small business and powerful corporations affects American consumers, and I try to let Nick’s principles guide me. As he taught me, integrity and fairness keep me on the right track.