President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama dance during the Commander in Chief's Ball in downtown Washington, D.C., Dec. 20, 2009. More than 5,000 men and women in uniform are providing military ceremonial support to the presidential inauguration, a tradition dating back to George Washington's 1789 inauguration. (DoD photo by Senior Airman Kathrine McDowell, U.S. Air Force/Released)

Were the Obamas Forced to Surrender Their Law Licenses?

In early October 2018, many people in the United States and abroad were closely watching the twists and turns around a Supreme Court nomination as multiple women accused the nominee of committing or abetting sexual assault. Almost immediately, bots, trolls, and useful idiots picked up on the controversy, muddying the waters with rumors, gossip, and outright fabrications about his accusers.

As the investigation into the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh continued and the discussion about him spiraled into new territory, the usual suspects resurrected a years-old chain email, spreading it across social media.

The original looked something like this, although there were some variations as time went on:

Barack Obama — Editor of the Harvard Law Review — Has No Law License?

I saw a note slide across the #TCOT feed on Twitter last night that mentioned Michelle Obama had no law license. This struck me as odd, since (a) she went to school to be a lawyer, and (b) she just recently held a position with the University of Chicago Hospitals as legal counsel — and that’s a pretty hard job to qualify for without a law license.

But being a licensed professional myself, I knew that every state not only requires licensure, they make it possible to check online the status of any licensed professional. So I did, and here’s the results from the ARDC Website:

She “voluntarily surrendered” her license in 1993. Let me explain what that means. A “Voluntary Surrender” is not something where you decide “Gee, a license is not really something I need anymore, is it?” and forget to renew your license. No, a “Voluntary Surrender” is something you do when you’ve been accused of something, and you “voluntarily surrender” you license five seconds before the state suspends you.

Here’s an illustration: I’m a nurse. At various times in my 28 years of nursing I’ve done other things when I got burned out; most notably a few years as a limousine driver; even an Amway salesman at one point. I always, always renewed my nursing license — simply because it’s easier to send the state $49.00 a month than to pay the $200, take a test, wait six weeks, etc., etc. I’ve worked (recently) in a Nursing Home where there was an 88 year old lawyer and a 95 year old physician. Both of them still had current licensures as well. They would never DREAM of letting their licenses lapse.

I happen to know there is currently in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City Indiana an inmate who is a licensed physician, convicted of murder when he chased the two burglars who entered his home and terrorized his family into the street and killed them. (And I can’t say I blame him for that, either.) This physician still has an active medical license and still sees patients, writes prescriptions, etc all from inside the prison. And he renews his medical license every two years, too. I tried looking up why she would “Voluntarily surrender” her license, but Illinois does not have it’s 1993 records online.

But when I searched for “Obama”, I found this:

“Voluntarily retired” — what does that mean? Bill Clinton hung onto his law license until he was convicted of making a false statement in the Lewinsky case and had to “Voluntarily Surrender” his license too. President Barack Obama, former editor of the Harvard Law Review, is no longer a “lawyer”. He surrendered his license back in 2008 possibly to escape charges that he “fibbed” on his bar application.

This is the former editor of the Harvard Law Review who doesn’t seem to give a crap about his law license.

Something else odd; while the Search feature brings up the names, any searches for the Disciplinary actions ends quickly.

As in, Too Quickly. Less than a half-second quickly on a Search Engine that can take five seconds to Search for anything.
As in, “there’s a block on that information” kind of thing.

So we have the first Lawyer President and First Lady — who don’t actually have licenses to practice law. There’s more to this story, I’m sure. I’ll let you know when I find it.

Needless to say, in the years since, “more to the story” never appeared.

A quick search of the state of Illinois’ Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission website shows that Barack Obama’s law license was changed to “retired” in 2008, when he was elected president (the year before, he had switched it to “voluntarily inactive” in order to focus on his presidential run, and Michelle Obama has been listed as “voluntarily inactive” since 1993, when she left law and entered the public sector. Since then, neither has been embroiled in any sort of scandal that would require them to turn in their (inactive) law licenses.

As University of California, Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh wrote in 2010 about this very rumor:

4. The article continues, “President Barack Obama, former editor of the Harvard Law Review, is no longer a ‘lawyer’. He surrendered his license back in 2008 possibly to escape charges that he ‘fibbed’ on his bar application.” And “possibly” because the Illuminati ordered the Bar to do it, but that’s just empty hypothesizing, with no actual evidence. The fact that someone who doesn’t actually practice law, and is unlikely to practice law, voluntarily retires is hardly a sinister signal: It costs money to be a member of the bar, and if you’re not going to practice, it may make sense to retire. Nor does this somehow undermine claims that he’s a lawyer; a retired lawyer is still commonly called a lawyer — as an indication of what he has studied, and his general professional field — even if he is no longer a member of the bar.

5. It then says, “Michelle Obama ‘voluntarily surrendered’ her law license in 1993.” Again, I’m not sure what the quotes mean, but the bar record says that she is “Voluntarily inactive.” This is even more common for lawyers who don’t need a bar card, such as many lawyers who don’t appear in court or counsel clients other than employer. Being an active status lawyer costs more money (see Rule 756) than being inactive, and it requires one to do Continuing Legal Education classes (Rule 790), unless one is in certain jobs for which the CLE requirements are waived). The difference in bar fees, for instance, is why I myself was inactive in 2001. Moreover, it’s pretty easy to switch back to active status should one need to do that (as I did in early 2002); again, in Illinois, see Rule 756.

Michelle and Barack Obama are also listed on the Illinois State Bar Association’s official website as honorary members (as are Hillary Clinton and Harper Lee for her portrayal of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird) which would be extremely strange if they had both lost their licenses in disgrace.

While we cannot explain the search engine lag time, we did not experience anything like it during our own tests, suggesting that might be less to do with the engine and more to do with the person conducting the search to begin with.