Rex E. Lee

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Rex Lee
Rex Lee-large.jpg
President of Brigham Young University
In office
July 1, 1989 – December 31, 1995
Preceded byJeffrey R. Holland
Succeeded byMerrill J. Bateman
37th Solicitor General of the United States
In office
August 1981 – June 1, 1985
PresidentRonald Reagan
Preceded byWade H. McCree
Succeeded byCharles Fried
United States Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division
In office
PresidentGerald Ford
Preceded byCarla Anderson Hills
Succeeded byBarbara A. Babcock
Dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School
In office
October 1971 – August 1981
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byCarl S. Hawkins
Personal details
Rex Edwin Lee

(1935-02-27)February 27, 1935
St. Johns, Arizona, U.S.
DiedMarch 11, 1996(1996-03-11) (aged 61)
Provo, Utah, U.S.
Political partyRepublican
Spouse(s)Janet Griffin
Children7 (including Mike and Thomas)
EducationBrigham Young University (B.A.)
University of Chicago (J.D.)

Rex Edwin Lee (February 27, 1935 – March 11, 1996) was an American lawyer, law clerk for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron White, and the United States Solicitor General during 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 politicians Mo Udall and Stewart Udall.

Early life and education[edit]

Lee was born in St. Johns, Arizona, 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 completing his undergraduate work at BYU, he obtained a J.D. degree and graduated first in his class 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.[citation needed]

In 1972, Lee left his public legal career to become the founding dean of Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School 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 1975–76,[7] and then as Solicitor General of the United States from 1981-85.

As Solicitor General, Lee had the opportunity to focus on the legal effort he enjoyed most: briefing and arguing cases before 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]


Before Lee's tenure as university president was over, his cancer returned. He served at the university from July 1, 1989 to December 31, 1995, leaving the position two and one-half months before his death at age 61.[10]


Lee was survived by his wife, Janet, seven children and ten grandchildren. During a memorial 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]


Associate 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]

Like his father, Thomas would later teach at the Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School, before resigning to accept an appointment as an Associate Justice of the Utah Supreme Court.[9]

Another son, Mike, 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 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 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.[11]


  • Rex E. Lee (1981), A Lawyer Looks at the Constitution; Brigham Young University Press; ISBN 0-8425-1904-1
  • Rex E. Lee (1992), What Do Mormons Believe; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-639-7

See also[edit]


External links[edit]

Academic offices
New office Dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School
Succeeded by
Carl S. Hawkins
Preceded by
Jeffrey R. Holland
President of Brigham Young University
Succeeded by
Merrill J. Bateman
Legal offices
Preceded by
Wade H. McCree
Solicitor General of the United States
Succeeded by
Charles Fried