Rex E. Lee

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Rex E. Lee
Rex Lee-large.jpg
10th President of BYU
In office
1989–1995
Preceded by Jeffrey R. Holland
Succeeded by Merrill J. Bateman
37th Solicitor General of the United States
In office
August 1981 – October 1985
President Ronald Reagan
Preceded by Wade H. McCree
Succeeded by Charles Fried
1st Dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School
In office
1971–1981
Preceded by Founding Dean
Succeeded by Carl S. Hawkins
Personal details
Born Rex Edwin Lee
(1935-02-27)February 27, 1935
St. Johns, Arizona
Died March 11, 1996(1996-03-11) (aged 61)
Religion LDS Church

Rex Edwin Lee (February 27, 1935 – March 11, 1996) from St. Johns, Arizona was a Constitutional lawyer, a law clerk for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White, and the United States Solicitor General under the Reagan administration. He argued 59 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), Lee was an alumnus and the tenth president of Brigham Young University (BYU). Lee was a first cousin of Mo Udall and Stewart Udall.

Early life and education[edit]

Lee was the son of Mabel (née Whiting) and Rex E. Lee.[1] He served a mission for the LDS Church in the Mexican Mission. He first met his future wife, Janet Griffin (whose father was the Treasury Attaché of the US Embassy in Mexico City), while he was in Mexico. When Lee returned from his mission and enrolled at BYU, he again became acquainted with Janet and they got married the following year.[2]

During his undergraduate years at BYU, Lee was elected student-body president.[3] After graduating from BYU, he graduated first in his class and obtained a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 1963.[4] From law school he went to Washington, DC, to serve as a law clerk for Byron White, an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Early legal career and academia[edit]

Following his clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court, Lee returned to his home state of Arizona, and became a partner in the Phoenix law firm of Jennings, Strouss & Salmon. Within four years of graduating from law school (and before he had taken a deposition in any lower court civil proceeding) Lee argued his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1972, Lee left his public legal career to become the founding dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU and is considered personally responsible for recruiting many members of its charter class.[5][6]

Supreme Court advocate and scholar[edit]

Lee entered public service, first at the invitation of Attorney General Edward H. Levi as an Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Division in the United States Department of Justice from 1975 to 1976,[7] and then as Solicitor General of the United States from 1981 to 1985. As Solicitor General, Lee had the opportunity to focus on the legal effort he enjoyed most: briefing and arguing cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. During his time as Solicitor General, Lee won 23 of the 30 cases he argued during Ronald Reagan's first presidential term.[8] At the time of his death, in a hospital bed, he was preparing to argue his 60th case before the Court.[5]

In addition, Lee built a reputation as a man committed to principle.[8] Associate Justice White said that Lee "was an experienced, careful, and very brainy advocate. And he was the epitome of integrity on whom we could rely for straight talk about the cases coming before the court."[8] At one point, while being criticized for taking somewhat unpopular stances that might have been at odds with the administration under which he served, Lee responded: "I'm the solicitor general, not the pamphleteer general."[4][8]

Lee relished the opportunity to argue before the Supreme Court. His son, Mike, noted that "[b]efore and during the arguments, Rex devoted all his faculties into crafting a persuasive case. But back in his office following the argument, that pent up energy would explode into utter euphoria. Mike likens it to a kid on a sugar high. 'When he came out of there, he was just really excited to talk about it.'"[9] In 1986, after his resignation from the Solicitor General's office, Lee was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor recounted, "I remember an appearance at the court by Rex Lee [near the end of his 1987 hospitalization for cancer treatment]. Looking very pale and weak, he had to sit on a stool for the only time I saw him do that. I think he wore a wig. But nonetheless, [he was] effective. And we were all very moved by that."[8]

Following a year of medical treatment and therapy, Lee recovered and was named BYU's president. According to some accounts, when Lee was asked to assume the position as university president, he accepted on the condition that he would still be able to argue cases before the Supreme Court in his spare time (and did so on nine occasions).[8] Of that time period, former Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson, said, "I'm willing to bet that even as a part-time lawyer, Rex probably had more arguments than any other attorney in private practice in that period."[8] Unfortunately, before his tenure as university president was over, his cancer returned. Lee served at the university from July 1, 1989 to December 31, 1995, leaving the position two and one-half months before he died.

Legacy[edit]

During a memoral service for Lee, former Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger stated that even after years of separation, Lee's influence was still felt in the Office of the Solicitor General. According to Dellinger, "Some few people have influence that lasts well beyond their time. One is Rex Lee."[5] Lee's influence is still seen today, in both government and academia. Current Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito served as an assistant to Solicitor General Lee from 1981 to 1985, where Alito argued 12 cases before the Court.[9] Lee's son, Thomas Rex Lee also graduated from BYU and then the University of Chicago Law School before clerking for Judge Harvie Wilkinson on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and then Justice Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court.[9] Like his father, Tom Lee would later teach at the J. Reuben Clark Law School, before resigning to accept an appointment as Associate Justice on the Utah Supreme Court.[9] Another son, Mike Lee, graduated from BYU as an undergrad and a law student, before clerking for Judge Dee Benson at the United States District Court, District of Utah, and for Justice Samuel Alito, once while he was still judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and once on the U.S. Supreme Court.[9] In 2011, Mike Lee became a United States Senator from Utah.

Lee was an avid runner throughout his life (he was nominated to be Solicitor General two days after completing the Boston Marathon),[4] and an annual race is held in his honor at BYU to raise proceeds for cancer research.[10]

Lee and his wife, Janet, have seven children.

Works[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Wade H. McCree
Solicitor General of the United States
1981–1985
Succeeded by
Charles Fried
Academic offices
Preceded by
Jeffrey R. Holland
President of BYU
1989–1995
Succeeded by
Merrill J. Bateman