The Conservative Libertarian
Mike Williams chafes at the use of racial preferences anywhere in society
Published in 2006 Massachusetts Rising Stars magazine
on April 20, 2006
Updated on October 17, 2016
On a chilly Monday morning last December, Mike Williams waited for the United States Supreme Court to announce whether it would hear an appeal in a school desegregation case that had consumed him since 1999. He was optimistic.
In 2003, the court ruled that the University of Michigan may not make race a “defining feature” of its undergraduate admissions policy. Williams believed that the decision set a precedent that would determine that the plan used by Lynn public schools, which regulated transfers by white or minority students to promote racial balance, was similarly flawed.
The court announces decisions on its Web site. That morning, however, Williams, a 37-year-old associate at Lawson & Weitzen of Boston, did not hover breathlessly over his computer. He sat on a hard wooden bench in Middlesex County Superior Court watching a lawyer from his firm argue a products liability case. During a break in the trial, he rushed to check his messages and heard the news: The appeal was denied. He was crushed. “It would have been a pretty big deal for me,” he says.
At Lawson & Weitzen, he is a meat-and-potatoes lawyer in civil cases. As a co-founder and the staff attorney of Citizens for the Preservation of Constitutional Rights (CPCR), he is a constitutional law paladin fighting for conservative causes.
Litigating high-profile cases under a conservative banner while maintaining a private practice in a liberal state is a delicate balancing act. To do so while on the letterhead of a 32-lawyer firm is all the more ticklish. Lawson & Weitzen’s two equity partners, Evan Lawson and Richard Weitzen, “are well to the left of me,” Williams says. Yet all seem happy to agree to disagree on politics and concentrate on the law.
Lawson & Weitzen has offices on the third floor of an impossibly long former Navy warehouse that juts fortress-like into Boston Harbor. Williams, who is of medium height and bespectacled, with receding dark hair and a reedy voice, seems better cast as a donnish scholar than a fire-breathing ideologue.
“It’s nice when you can discuss the constitutional arguments with someone,” he says, “even if his personal political beliefs aren’t the same as yours.”
If Williams is a conservative ideologue (“a mix of libertarian and conservative” is how he sums it up), that was not his birthright. His parents were “beatniks before they were hippies,” Williams says. His father helped start a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society while attending Syracuse University in the 1960s. A lodestar of his father’s politics was a haunting story about the discrimination that Williams’ great-grandfather, an Irish immigrant, faced when he settled in Rhode Island. He could find no work except a perilous job at a torpedo manufacturing plant in Newport, where an explosion almost killed him. According to family lore, “he got blown out of a window into the harbor,” Williams says.
Williams lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Revere. He grew up in Lincoln, R.I., a middle-class suburb northeast of Providence. He attended Lincoln Junior-Senior High School, but was not active in politics. “I was a pretty shy kid in high school,” he recalls. “I couldn’t have gotten up and spoken in front of people.”
Williams traces the roots of his political philosophy to those years. He had dyslexia, and despite his insistence that he could handle college-prep classes, school officials shunted him away from them. “Those administrative people saying, ‘You’re never going to make it in college,’ gave me this idea that, gee, maybe the government shouldn’t be making life decisions for people. Maybe government should stay out of people’s way.”
Williams persevered. A slow reader, he studied even harder and proved that he could excel in almost everything. He went on to study political science at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., and law at Suffolk University in Boston, graduating from both cum laude.
Drawn to the conservative critique of constitutionality issues while at Suffolk, Williams established with another student a Suffolk chapter of The Federalist Society, which has emerged as a brain trust for conservative lawyers and law students. He helped Boston attorney Michael C. McLaughlin challenge the race-based admissions policy that had excluded one of McLaughlin’s daughters, Julia, from Boston Latin School. A judge eventually ordered the school to open its doors to Julia. Williams found a calling.
Around this time another Boston attorney, Chester Darling, sued the Boston Redevelopment Authority and other government agencies on behalf of former West End residents who had been displaced by an urban-renewal project and were seeking access to subsidized housing. Freshly graduated from Suffolk, Williams volunteered to help. Most of the displaced residents were white people of Eastern European or Jewish background. According to Williams, the government had promised them that they could return to the area as renters once new housing was built. But city officials did not follow through with their offer of a “statutory right of return” because it would have made the area too white. Government officials planned to impose limitations. “Chester challenged that,” Williams says.
By that time, Darling had achieved no small degree of fame — some would say notoriety — in Boston legal circles. A solo practitioner, Darling had waged a lonely three-year, and ultimately successful, defense of South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade organizers, who had objected to a court-ordered mandate to allow a gay group to march in the parade. In 1998, Darling, Williams and one of Williams’ Suffolk classmates, Robert Roughsedge, launched CPCR as a nonprofit law firm dedicated to conservative causes. Darling’s second-floor office in the gilded Ames Webster mansion at the corner of Dartmouth Street and Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay served as CPCR’s headquarters. Williams’ starting salary was $20,000 a year.
Funded mostly by donations, Darling and Williams filed federal suits to invalidate Boston’s school desegregation plan to require the Lexington Board of Selectmen to allow the Knights of Columbus to continue erecting a crèche at Christmas on the Lexington Battle Green, despite a newly adopted ordinance that prohibited it. CPCR effectively won the first case (Boston backed away from race-based school assignments), but lost the second.
Thanks to the tutelage of Darling, who is 76, Williams says he had an “opportunity to work with someone who has years of experience and was able to pass it along.” As Williams became more experienced and Darling’s eyesight deteriorated due to macular degeneration, the mentor deferred to the protégé.
It fell to Williams, in 2001, to appear before the U.S. Court of Appeals and demand the recusal of District Judge Nancy Gertner from a Boston school desegregation case because of her comments to a newspaper reporter about the merits of the case. Williams was “more than hesitant” about arguing that case, recounts Darling. “But he did fine,” Darling says. “He had all his arguments orchestrated and marshaled. The only problem was that he went too fast. I had to slow him down.”
Williams no longer has the jitters in court, he says, even when he appears before Gertner, as he often has. Once a leading defense lawyer in civil rights cases (who was known for “her radical causes, red clothing and loudly voiced opinions,” according to a 1999 article in The Boston Globe), Gertner might not be Williams’ first choice to preside over his cases.
But it was Gertner whom he faced when the Lynn school desegregation case reached U.S. District Court. Lynn’s voluntary affirmative-action plan guarantees children seats in their neighborhood public school, but bars them from transferring to a different school if doing so would upset the racial makeup of either school. Williams represented 11 families, blacks and whites, whose children had been denied transfers. He argued that the race-based plan was incompatible with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and, in any event, would not mean a better education for either white or minority students in Lynn.
At the 11-day trial Williams was often the lone lawyer appearing on the families’ side (although Darling and Roughsedge were intermittently on hand). On the opposing side, there were always at least six lawyers in the courtroom representing the Lynn School Committee, the city of Lynn, the state attorney general, the NAACP and the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights. “By that point,” Williams says, “it was something I was used to, because there had been a large number of hearings leading up to the trial.”
Gertner issued a 156-page opinion upholding the Lynn plan. Williams appealed. The Court of Appeals ruled 3 to 2 that the plan had a “very positive benefit” in furthering race relations and academic achievement and was a reasonable means to accomplish those ends under the Constitution. And then the U.S. Supreme Court turned down his final appeal.
Looking back, Williams doesn’t mask his disappointment. “Nobody likes to lose, but this is one that is going to stick in the craw … I really thought this one should have gone the other way.”
In his work for Lawson & Weitzen, Williams draws on his experience as a litigator in complex, high-pressure cases. He is well suited for such cases, according to Darling. “He can make contemporaneous arguments that are logical and responsive, and he is quick on his feet,” Darling says. And Williams has parlayed his expertise in what he calls “electronic trial presentation”— that is, using computers, videotape and bar codes for efficient handling and presentation of testimony from depositions and other exhibits — to develop the firm’s technical capacity.
He doesn’t spend as much time on CPCR work these days because the organization is struggling financially, which Williams attributes to the slump in the stock market. But his commitment to the cause remains steadfast.
Williams confesses to taking some ribbing about his political views from the other lawyers at the firm. During the last presidential election there were “a lot of jokes going back and forth,” he says. But so long as he does not mingle his two identities — conservative advocate on the one hand, apolitical corporate lawyer on the other — Williams has the firm’s support. And when the next case comes along that disrupts his sense of fairness, particularly if it involves school desegregation policy, he’ll be ready to answer the call.
“To deny somebody something because of the color of the skin they are born with is just wrong,” he says. “That’s just a matter of basic morality and constitutionality.”