A Lawyer Whose Client Is the United States


In 1975 I went on leave as dean of Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School to serve as assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Division of the United States Department of Justice. That division is responsible for general civil court cases of the United States. At any given time, the dollar value of claims against the United States handled by the Civil Division is in the range of $100 billion, and the amount recovered each year by this division for the United States is about $100 million. Even more important than the monetary claims, however, are the federal programs—representing virtually the entire range of U.S. governmental activity—whose legality is defended in court by the Civil Division. Approximately one out of six cases decided by the United States Supreme Court during any given term comes from the Civil Division.

There are several reasons why I accepted this position as assistant attorney general. First, I saw in it an opportunity for potentially significant public service. No group of American citizens has a greater stake in good government and preservation of basic constitutional guarantees than American members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Our interest and stake in law-government institutions includes an obligation to play a part in their operation and preservation. Second, I felt that my experience here would help me better serve Brigham Young University’s law school, my principal long-range professional interest, when I return to it in January 1977. Third, this particular position is a fascinating one for a lawyer. The interest level of a lawyer’s work is keyed to his client’s activities. There is no more interesting client than the United States of America, and the most interesting cases generated by the Civil Division are those that come to the attention of the assistant attorney general. I suspect it is for this reason that the most illustrious of my predecessors, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, has characterized it as “the best legal job in government.”

The most important problem area with which the Civil Division has dealt during my time here—in my opinion the most important legal problem area facing our government today—concerns the separation of powers. Although the phrase is not explicit in the Constitution, the principle pervades Articles 1, 2, and 3, and no principle is more fundamental to American constitutional law. Interestingly, it is also the single aspect of constitutional law which most fascinated President J. Reuben Clark, Jr.

My testimony and understanding of the restored gospel and my government service have each benefited from the other. My experience here has sharpened and illumined my appreciation of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s admiration for our constitutional protections of individual rights, and President J. Reuben Clark, Jr’s., concern for the intricate problems arising out of the separation of powers. Our constitutional system is deeply rooted and highly resilient, but no system of government in which ultimate power and authority are vested in the people can endure without the continuing involvement of citizens to whom good government is important.

Rex E. Lee serves as a Sunday School teacher in the McLean Ward, Oakton Virginia Stake.