Olson to discuss legal system’s role in governing process


Theodore Olson

John Ford | Staff Writer

Theodore Olson, former U.S. solicitor general, will be the featured speaker at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater as the Week Two examination continues of “Applied Ethics: Government and the Search for the Common Good.”

Olson has been at the center of some of the most significant U.S. legal proceedings of the past 25 years and was named by Time magazine last year as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Olson will be joined on the Amphitheater stage by frequent Chautauqua speaker John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York, prominent Supreme Court historian and specialist on former high court justice Robert H. Jackson of Jamestown, N.Y.

Barrett envisions a wide-ranging colloquy in which he will pose broad questions and Olson will respond. “I expect he will do most of the talking,” Barrett said.

Olson has long been one of the most visible and successful attorneys arguing cases before the Supreme Court. Notable successes include Bush v. Gore following the 2000 general election and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Overall, he has won more than three-quarters of his cases before the high court.

He is currently representing NFL players in their federal court lawsuit against the NFL owners and their lockout of players.

Olson worked in the Department of Justice in the early 1980s and was colicitor general — the nation’s top lawyer — under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004. He served in the Reagan White House and was former President Ronald Reagan’s personal attorney during and after his presidency. Except for his years in the Justice Department, Olson has been affiliated with the powerhouse Los Angeles and Washington law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP since 1965.

Olson was serving as solicitor general on Sept. 11. His wife, Barbara, was a passenger on the hijacked American Airlines jet, which was crashed into the Pentagon on that day.

Potential conflicts between personal values and professional responsibilities and how lawyers deal with these conflicts will form one of the themes Barrett will likely raise in this morning’s program.

Another area for discussion is what Barrett calls “the politicization of the law and criminal justice by those out of political power to displace those who are in.”

Barrett wants to examine how this got started and seemingly became so deeply rooted, and to explore an exit strategy for the American political system.

“The legal system was always part of the campaign process to some degree,” Barrett noted, “but not until more recently has it become a prominent component of the governing process.”

Barrett also said “the ethics of the high-end lawyer in decisions around defending money and power versus public interest fights” form another likely basis for discussion

“Should ethics guide the brilliant lawyer away from the wrong side of justice?” he asked.

An additional conversational subject will be the increasingly prevalent view of the Supreme Court over the past 25 years as what Barrett describes as “pre-committed.”

“Does this image square with the concept of advocacy before open-minded judges? Where are the remedies?” he asked.

Barrett said he and Olson have been acquainted since the mid-1980s, when Barrett was a top aide to independent counsel Lawrence Walsh in the Iran-Contra investigation and Olson represented Reagan. Later, after Reagan left office, Olson and Barrett negotiated the conditions under which access to the former president would be granted.

“We formed a kind of combat bond,” Barrett said.

Barrett called Olson “simply a superb lawyer.”

At one point, Barrett said, congressional staffers called him “looking for ammunition to defeat” Olson’s nomination by President George  W. Bush to be solicitor general.

“I disappointed them,” he said. “I said Ted Olson was superbly qualified for the job.”

Olson will be accompanied by his wife, Lady Olson, who is a tax attorney. Barrett’s wife, Sarah Walzer, executive director of the Parent-Child Home Program, will also be on the grounds.