Earning a J.D. was an early goal for Deputy Gov. Christian L. Mitchell, who completed law school last month.
Mitchell, 33, traces his ambition to practice law back to his introduction to the criminal justice system when his aunt, Donna Gist, was wrongfully convicted in the death of a five-month-old boy in the late 1990s.
With the help of attorneys Thomas M. Breen and Todd S. Pugh, Gist’s murder conviction in DuPage County court was overturned in 2000.
“That’s what made me initially want to be a lawyer, before I discovered public service was my calling,” said Mitchell, who served in the state House of Representatives from 2013 to 2019, representing the 26th District in Chicago.
Mitchell grew up in the western suburbs of Cook County, splitting time between his grandparents’ Maywood home and his mother’s in Westchester.
After graduating from the University of Chicago in 2008, he worked for then-Illinois attorney general Lisa M. Madigan’s reelection campaign and managed Will Burns’ winning campaign for 4th Ward Alderman. He served as senior advisor to Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, and as a member of Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s transition team.
Mitchell was the Midwest director of paid media and polling for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012.
When he was elected to the Illinois House in 2012 at age 25, Mitchell was the chamber’s youngest member.
He also worked as a senior advisor for Tammy Duckworth’s Senate campaign, as an former aide to Lisa Madigan’s office and as the director of external affairs for Cook County.
Mitchell was named interim executive director of the Democratic Party of Illinois in 2018 after Timothy Mapes was removed from the position over sexual harassment allegations.
He said the weekend J.D. program at Loyola University Chicago School of Law — where Mitchell was in the inaugural class — has allowed him to complete his coursework while juggling multiple responsibilities in the legislature and the statewide party.
He’ll formally graduate from the program in May.
“It’s incredibly innovative,” Mitchell said. As a deputy governor, a non-elected senior advisory role within Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office, he currently handles policies around public safety, infrastructure, energy and the environment.
The Daily Law Bulletin spoke to Mitchell about how law school changed his perspective, as well as his plans for the spring legislative session and his thoughts on a future in politics.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CDLB: Are there ways that your time in law school has changed the way you think about legislature or your role as deputy governor?
Mitchell: Law school was transforming my thinking as I was doing it, and has transformed my thinking now that I’m done with it. I think legal education just changes the way you think about the world… It teaches you to evaluate risk in a different way and it teaches you to look at the art of legislating in a different way.
The most prominent example for me is my work as lead person in the Pritzker administration on cannabis legalization.
Thinking through a way to constitutionally inject social equity into the process, to make sure those who had been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs would have a shot at ownership and opportunity in the new cannabis industry, was entirely informed by my legal education.
My legal education, though I may not be the traditional practicing lawyer that some of Law Bulletin readers are, has already changed the way I think about my work everyday.
We deal with administrative law here, and [I’m] thinking about how, as we are setting up processes or agencies are promulgating rules, how that will or will not be violating the administrative procedures act. It’s something I now think about consciously in a way that I never would have without going to law school.
CDLB: What are some priorities you have in the upcoming legislative session?
Mitchell: I said as a legislator, good policy dies for lack of good implementation.
One of the things I’m focused and the governor’s focused on, having had a very successful legislative session last time, having for example passed a $45 billion capital construction program, (is) how do we implement that well?
How do we do it effectively, efficiently and for best use of taxpayers’ dollars? How do we make sure the diversity in the state of Illinois is reflected in the people who have ownership and business opportunities under this capital construction program but also people who are going to be workers on that capital construction program? I anticipate a very busy year as always.
CDLB: Do you see yourself running for public office at some point in the future?
Mitchell: I have no idea what the future holds. I absolutely love the job that I have now. I feel incredibly grateful that Gov. Pritzker tapped me for this post. I think the work we do here is very important and I think there’s a lot more of it to be done.
As we look at reforming the criminal justice system and implementing this capital program, I feel that I have a lot of work to do to help the governor keep the residents of Illinois healthy and safe and that’s my focus.