May 15, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 17

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    Profile: Elizabeth Garrett

    Elizabeth Garrett, Assistant Professor in the Law School, is well-known in academic circles and on Capitol Hill as an expert on the federal budget process, legislative procedures, statutory interpretation and federal income taxation, and the politics surrounding these issues.

    After several years as a top aide to former U.S. Sen. David Boren, Garrett is now a top researcher in budget and tax issues. In November, she testified before the National Commission on Restructuring the Internal Revenue Service.

    Her current research questions the value of term limits, showing that such legislation rarely has the intended effect of significantly increasing the number of citizen-legislators. She is also studying unfunded congressional mandates, suggesting that political and legislative solutions, not just judicial remedies, may be effective in protecting the values of federalism and states' interests.

    After receiving her J.D. from the University of Virginia in 1988, Garrett clerked for a year for Judge Stephen Williams of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. From 1989 to 1990, she clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and the following year she clerked for Judge Howard Holtzmann on the U.S.-Iran Claims Tribunal. Garrett worked for Sen. Boren from 1991 to 1995, serving first as legal counsel and legislative assistant for tax, budget and welfare reform issues and then as legislative director and budget counsel. She joined the University faculty in 1995. What is it that intrigues you about financial law? When I finished clerking for Justice Marshall, I talked to Senator Boren, who was a mentor of mine when I was a student at the University of Oklahoma. He was a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, which deals with federal entitlement programs and tax issues, and he wanted to hire a lawyer to specialize in those issues and other financial matters. During the time I was his legislative director, I became increasingly involved in budget issues -- particularly President Clinton's first budget, which included a BTU tax on energy -- and the question of budget process reform of entitlement programs and the tax code.

    The last important bill that I drafted was a repeal of the current income tax system and its replacement with a consumption tax. Such proposals have become more salient as Congress debates tax reforms like the flat tax.

    What was it like being a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall? Thurgood Marshall had been a hero of mine since I was little. To have the opportunity to meet him -- and to work for him for a year -- was amazing, a truly enriching experience. I felt the power of the law and the importance of the court every time I walked into the Supreme Court building. As a 23-year-old person, working on cases that affected people's lives in significant ways -- it is a very serious responsibility and privilege for any lawyer, particularly for someone that age.

    And I had the opportunity to talk every day to Thurgood Marshall and to learn from him. Growing up, I had heard about how he helped to integrate the University of Oklahoma Law School. I remember my parents telling me about the obvious aspects of segregation that pervaded Oklahoma during their youth, separate facilities and schools for example, and I was aware of the less obvious but equally destructive segregation and discrimination that still occurs. I was working with this person who did so much to change those ugly aspects of America and to realize the promise of "equal treatment under law."

    I tried to talk to him every day about the cases he had litigated for the NAACP, his experiences as solicitor general and representing black soldiers in Korea, and his relationships with the Kennedys, LBJ and J. Edgar Hoover. Justice Marshall was unusual because he had done more to affect the law and the country than any other justice -- all before he was appointed to the court. He was simply the best litigator and lawyer of this century.

    When did you decide to get into academics? My enjoyment of the challenge of law school and my appellate clerkship led me naturally to academics as a career. I found that I relished opportunities to think seriously about difficult legal questions and to craft new approaches to the law.

    I think it's very important for my students when I teach legislative process and budget policy to give them a sense of how these things work in practice. In teaching, and in my scholarship, I try to bring to bear not only legal doctrines and sophisticated theories, but also an awareness of real-world institutions and how laws are actually drafted, applied and interpreted.

    You talked earlier about your interest in politics and policy. Did you entertain thoughts of going into politics yourself? No, because I'm very blunt. Senator Boren valued straightforward and frank discussion, fortunately. But it would be hard for me, I think, to be a candidate for office. I enjoyed being a legislative aide, and I think that the fact that I didn't plan a further career as a lobbyist or in politics made me a different kind of aide. I had no personal agenda other than to observe and learn so I could use my experience as an academic.

    What is appealing to you about teaching? I come from a family of teachers and I grew up believing that teaching is an important career. I like teaching for at least three reasons: The first is that excellent teaching depends in part on one of my skills: the ability to organize a mass of material and present it in a way that students can understand and that challenges them to learn more.

    Second, I enjoy watching students move from not understanding a concept to understanding it, and I work to develop different methods to get them to that point. When I was growing up, my mother, who is a teacher, told me that every grade was partly the student's grade and partly the teacher's grade. And I feel an enormous responsibility to make sure that I do everything that I can to communicate knowledge and to share my enthusiasm about the law with my students.

    Finally, I like the performance aspect of teaching. I was a national debater, and I have been giving speeches and presentations all my life. Learning is exciting, and solving legal puzzles should be an energy-filled process. Teaching University of Chicago students is an enormous charge for me.

    -- Catherine Behan