Professor Trevor Morrison: From the Classroom to the White House and Back Again
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New York, Feb. 1, 2010— Trevor Morrison ’98 is no stranger to Washington.
Morrison, Professor and Vice Dean, clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 and worked two years in high-profile offices within the Justice Department.
But Morrison’s most recent journey inside the Beltway was a “whole other thing,” he said. In December, he completed a one-year stay at the White House as an associate counsel. Even for a seasoned Washington veteran, this was a big deal.
“On the first day and the last day and every day in between it was both a great honor and very exciting to be working at the White House,” Morrison said during an interview in his Jerome Greene Hall office. “When I began there, I hoped I would not take it for granted. And over the course of a year I don’t think I did.”
Morrison served on President Obama’s transition team after the 2008 election for what was supposed to be temporary assignment. He helped draft the executive orders Obama would issue two days into his presidency on the future of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, interrogation, and detention policy.
“His work so impressed everyone there was no doubt that if we could get him to join the White House counsel’s staff that would be a great benefit for the administration,” said Daniel Meltzer, the president’s Principal Deputy Counsel.
Then-White House Counsel Gregory Craig wasted no time making an offer. For a lawyer who had invested the time Morrison had in the public sector, this was a dream job. One problem, though: Morrison had first arrived at the Law School in 2008 after teaching at Cornell, and he and his family had just settled into life in New York.
Still, he was able to arrange for a one-year leave. “[Dean] David Schizer and others here were very gracious in making [the leave] possible,” said Morrison, who would spend much of his time with the issues he focused on during the transition, as well as other complex constitutional and legal policy issues.
“When Trevor joined the office everyone knew we were getting a brilliant lawyer and scholar,” Meltzer said. “What was harder to know was how he would function in this complex, bureaucratic, and political environment. The answer soon became apparent.
“Trevor excelled, forging consensus, persuading others, working with Congress, understanding the dynamics of the press and bringing all those perspectives together in advising how difficult problems should be resolved.”
The only predictable part of a day at the White House, Morrison said, was how unpredictable it would invariably become.
“There were many days when I would come in thinking I want to spend the morning not answering my phone if I could help it and just digging in and trying to finish a longer project, and four minutes after I arrive the phone is not taking no for an answer,” Morrison recalled.
The memos and phone calls that were a big part of his day were put on hold once or twice a month when Morrison took part in meetings with President Obama, sometimes in small groups with just a few lawyers and other advisors.
“I was a big fan of the president coming into the job and I’m an even bigger fan now,” he said.
Working at the White House has never been a 9-to-5 job. Morrison would get home most weekends to see his wife Beth and their two daughters, Clio, now 8, and Sophia, 3. Robert Bauer, who succeeded Craig as White House Counsel in December, urged Morrison to stay on, but Morrison knew remaining more than a year was out of the question.
“I feel very, very lucky for the support I got from my wife and both of our girls during the entire year. They were amazing,” Morrison said. “I owe my wife a great debt for what she took on this past year.”
Morrison said his time in the White House and his teaching will invariably intersect. “I hope it will give me an added perspective as a scholar in the same way that I hope being a professor enhanced my work in the White House,” Morrison said.
This semester, he is teaching a course about the federal court system, where one of the biggest developments in recent years is judicial involvement in the issues Morrison worked on — including the legal standards governing the detentions at Guantanamo Bay and the constitutional and statutory rules applicable in military commissions.
“These are very complicated questions — not only in terms of legal doctrine but also as matters of policy, within legal boundaries — and I think I have a better sense of how the executive branch wrestles with them,” he said.
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