A matter of principle

Former U.S. Attorney John McKay brings his integrity and experience to the law school

John McKay at the Seattle University Law School

John McKay at the Seattle University Law School

Before John McKay talked to the media, before he told his colleagues that he had in fact been fired from his job as United States attorney for Western Washington, he explained the situation to the students in his class at Seattle University School of Law.

“He told us before it hit the news,” 3L Daniel Brown said. “We gave him a standing ovation. He talked to us about integrity. He’s a great professor, a great attorney, a stand-up guy. I rave about him.”

McKay, one of eight U.S. attorneys abruptly fired in December, felt he owed his students the truth. He had resigned quietly in December when asked. But when he saw that the truth was being eroded as the controversy surrounding the dismissals grew, he realized he could not go quietly. When testimony before Congress attributed the dismissals to performance issues – and as the controversy turned to what he calls a cover-up – he was compelled to speak out.

“I responded because I felt it reflected on the work being done by my colleagues. I felt it was necessary to defend my work and the work of the people in my office.

“It began to look worse and worse,” said McKay, now a Professor from Practice at the law school. “Silence equaled participating in the lie, and I wasn’t going to do that, and neither were my colleagues.”

McKay went on to testify before Congress and has been widely interviewed, including an appearance on “Meet the Press.”

The unprecedented simultaneous dismissals of McKay and his colleagues remain under investigation. The federal Office of Professional Responsibility and the Inspector General are both investigating. The outcome could lead to more changes at the Department of Justice and the Attorney General’s Office or could lead to criminal charges. McKay has given five hours of sworn testimony to the Inspector General’s investigators.

Through this nearly all-consuming personal and professional turmoil, McKay has become an important part of the law school, teaching courses on national security and terrorism, helping organize a powerful public policy forum and looking for ways to contribute to students.

Dean Kellye Testy asked him to sit on her Dean’s Leadership Council, an advisory body she is forming to assist her with advancing the School of Law. Also, McKay and former Superior Court Judge and equal justice advocate Don Horowitz are designing symposia to encourage all students – no matter the area of practice they choose – to work for the common good and to introduce them to a range of lawyers in practice who are doing just that.

“We are privileged to have a strong affiliation with John, and we look forward to a long relationship,” Dean Testy said. “His experience, his integrity and his dedication to our students and our mission are so valuable.”

“What I tell my students here at the law school is to watch and listen and find examples of integrity where you can. Courage sometimes means not being afraid to have some of your friends not like you for a while. On matters of principle, don’t be afraid to be unpopular.” - John McKay

McKay’s syllabi rely in part on his experience in cases such as the “millennium bomber” Ahmed Ressam, and James Ujaama, who was convicted of providing material support to the Taliban. His guest speakers have included U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, who ruled on Ressam’s case.

Though he has assumed a new position as senior vice president and general counsel at Getty Images, the world’s leading creator and distributor of visual content, McKay said his work at the law school is particularly rewarding.

“I loved it as soon as I got there. I have a high regard for what teachers do, and I felt very inspired to be a teacher,” McKay said. “I really feel so blessed to be able to teach at a law school that is literally trying to make the world a better place. I am really grateful to the law school and the university. I hope I can return as much as the law school has given me.”

Though some have criticized him and his former colleagues for talking publicly about their dismissals, McKay said he has no regrets. He has spoken before bar associations and legal groups in Washington, California and Hawaii.

“The reason I want to do that is I have a duty to educate on the importance of prosecutorial independence, even though it is a little personally uncomfortable,” he said. “Every time I stand up to speak, I have to tell everyone I got fired.”

More than 200 participants and media from around the region and the country turned out for the public policy forum with McKay, Paul Charlton of Arizona and David Iglesias of New Mexico.

Charlton, who has been more reticent about talking to the press, appeared at the forum and spoke candidly about his firing at McKay’s request.

“I’ll do anything for John,” he said.

Iglesias scoffed at the notion that McKay’s firing had anything to do with his pushing too hard for LInX, a state and federal law enforcement information-sharing system.

“Criticizing John McKay for being too much of a zealot for LInX is like criticizing Henry Ford for pushing that mass assembly idea too fast,” Iglesias said.

McKay, who was president of Legal Services Corporation, a private, nonprofit corporation established by Congress to ensure equal access to justice under the law for all low-income Americans, said the law school’s social justice mission is important to him. He grew up with the Peterson family for whom the Ronald Peterson Law Clinic is named and called Peterson “a great friend and hero to me.” He said the streetfront clinic, which gives students real-world experience helping people who might not otherwise have lawyers, is one of the best things about Seattle University School of Law.

McKay, who also has been a White House Fellow, working as a special assistant to the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C., and managing partner at Cairncross & Hempelmann, is excited about his new roles as general counsel and as professor.

“What I tell my students here at the law school is to watch and listen and find examples of integrity where you can,” McKay said. “Courage sometimes means not being afraid to have some of your friends not like you for a while. On matters of principle, don’t be afraid to be unpopular.”

Summer 2007