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The Finished Product

October 11, 2009

by Nathan Bengtsson
The Finished Product

The Athenaeum is one of the distinctive CMC institutions that play a major role in turning today’s students into tomorrow’s leaders.  This past Monday the Ath bore witness to the return of one if its own - Attorney General of Montana Steve Bullock (’88).  Professor Edward Haley, who sponsored the visit to celebrate the inauguration of the newly renamed Center for Human Rights Leadership, introduced Bullock.  He hit the nail on the head when he commented that, after all the work professors at CMC do to provide students with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed, it is a great pleasure when one has a chance to see “the finished product.” Steve Bullock is certainly that.  An accomplished lawyer, Bullock’s passion for “helping people” was the impetus that he says initially motivated him to pursue his profession. This passion has led him to advocate for labor in his private practice, and also is what eventually led him to his current position as State Attorney General.  A true CMCer, Bullock delivered his speech “Can a Single Lawyer Make a Difference? The State Attorney General's Role in Human Rights and Social Change" with a mix of personal aplomb, professional competence, and a clear passion for bringing positive change to the world around him.  He weighed in on a number of issues throughout the evening.

Bullock addressed professional responsibilty and social change.  In discussing his role as Attorney General of Montana, Bullock emphasized the sometimes contradictory nature of his position.  Citing the history of attorneys general as legal advocates for the people, he highlighted the power of his office in taking initiative against injustice.  Conversely, the attorney general’s ability to bring personal philosophy to the job is limited by the key purpose of the position- upholding the laws created by the state legislature.  This dichotomy, he remarked, can result in an attorney general being forced to uphold laws that he personally might find problematic, a position which hopefully is avoided by a reasonable and effective legislative branch.

He also discussed whether activist attorney generals are the new activist judges.  Making reference to both ends of the political spectrum via John McCain and Robert Reich, Bullock brought up the concern held in some circles regarding activist attorneys general.  The concern that the authority wielded by attorneys general constitutes “an end-run on democracy”, as Bullock put it, is not unfounded.  Although elected, these officials have the ability to impose regulations through legal actions that have wideranging effects on society and commerce that might normally be the purview of legislators.  The last ten to fifteen years have seen an increase in attorneys general taking initiative, especially collectively, in situations like the landmark case against tobacco companies in 1998.  Bullock spoke compellingly about the balance between pursuing social justice on the part of the public and respecting the powers of the legislative branch.

Of interest to many students, Bullock talked about how his academic and professional development has resulted in the position he holds today.  Although he did cite an interest in law that dated back to “the third grade,” he also laughingly referred to the missteps and hurdles that characterized much of his career path.  A PPE major at CMC, he prepared for the LSAT most of his senior year.  His poor results, however, initially led him to a path other than law.  He thus pursued a journey that led from Philadelphia, to “Jimmy Buffet’s Bar” in Florida, back to law school, through a big New York law firm, and ultimately back to his native state and the office he now holds.  Seniors, Steve Bullock is better looking than you, but there is hope.

Bullock described how he honed his campaign skills by learning the ropes here at CMC.  He ran for Freshman Class President and won on a platform that involved “borrowing” livestock from Cal Poly Pomona.  Although he had much to say about campaigning in Montana, one point he particularly emphasized was the importance of his fellow alumni.  His classmates were the ones who received his first fundraising letter, and the enthusiastic response of Democrats and Republicans alike was instrumental in helping him win the position he now holds.

Above all else, Attorney General Bullock’s speech at the Athenaeum was a powerful reminder of the important role that CMC plays in empowering bright students to become powerful social and professional agents.

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