(RNS) — For someone who has reached the pinnacle of the American legal system — if defending the president of the United States in his impeachment trial can be said to be the pinnacle — Jay Sekulow came perilously close to complete failure as a young lawyer.
Luck — or providence, as he sees it — intervened, putting Sekulow on a trajectory to the U.S. Senate floor this week.
In 1987, Sekulow was a partner in his own small Atlanta law firm when he stumbled into a morass of changing IRS regulations regarding some residential renovations he was handling for clients. As a result, he was sued, forcing his firm to collapse in bankruptcy.
Documents filed at the time with federal bankruptcy court said the firm had $13,071,748 in debts and $638,000 in assets.
Bereft and depressed, Sekulow was rescued not long after by an old friend: Moishe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus, the Messianic group that accepts Jesus as savior but retains traditional Jewish forms of worship.
At the age of 18, while a student at Atlanta Baptist College, now Mercer University, Sekulow had left the Jewish faith in which he was raised and had embraced Christianity, in part through the influence of Jews for Jesus.
Now 31, he accepted Rosen’s invitation to argue a Jews for Jesus appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, despite Sekulow's complete lack of experience in constitutional law. What followed must have been the steepest imaginable learning curve.
The Los Angeles Airport authority had passed a regulation prohibiting groups such as Jews for Jesus from distributing literature in its terminal at LAX.
The same year his firm underwent bankruptcy, Sekulow argued the case before the Supreme Court, as the unpaid general counsel to Jews for Jesus. Rosen and three board members were in the courtroom for support when Sekulow stepped to the podium. The regulation was overturned 9-0, to great acclaim in the evangelical world, which felt in dire need of a legal champion. It was a high-profile, courtroom version of basketball’s slam-dunk.
To be sure, the LAX SCOTUS victory was laudable. However, it is also fair to say that the LAX regulation, and a number of such restrictive First Amendment statutes Sekulow helped overturn in the following years, was so broad and poorly drawn it would not have taxed the skills of a first-year law student.
By the time Sekulow argued the constitutional challenge, the airport's ban on religious literature had already been overturned by every federal court on its way to the Supreme Court. No surprise there. The restriction read as if it had been designed to bait the justices: “The Central Terminal Area at Los Angeles International Airport is not open for First Amendment activities by any individual and/or entity.”
Nor were the professional reviews of Sekulow’s maiden appearance auspicious. American Lawyer magazine called him “rude and aggressive ... so nervous that at times he appeared nearly out of control,” noting that he had the temerity to interrupt the justices when they questioned him, a breach of court protocol and a rookie error.
Yet on the strength of that win, and several others that followed (including one in 1992, which protected the rights of Hare Krishnas to distribute airport literature), Sekulow founded a public interest law firm defending the rights of believing Christians, called Christian Advocates Serving Evangelism, or CASE.
In the years that followed, Sekulow’s legal reputation among his evangelical base grew. Ultimately, Sekulow would argue a dozen cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, with an estimable 8-4 record.
Ahead of one appearance before the high court, Trinity Broadcasting Network founder Paul Crouch compared Sekulow to the biblical Jewish hero who slew Goliath in his youth and became the greatest king of Israel. “Pray for our little David here, will you?” he asked.
However, to a careful observer it appeared to some degree that Sekulow’s reputation was inflated, in part to generate contributions to his two legal organizations. Besides CASE, he had founded, with funding by televangelist and sometime presidential candidate Pat Robertson, the American Center for Law and Justice.
As much as they claimed to be courtroom warriors, Sekulow and his growing band of Christian lawyers specialized in firing off threatening cease-and-desist letters to various government entities.
To be sure, Sekulow learned a good deal about constitutional law and religious liberty, some of it on the fly, in the decades that followed. He was driven and ambitious. His charm was more the result of sheer will than natural charisma.
However, until the impeachment trial, which appears to be another legal slam-dunk, his representation of President Donald Trump in the Mueller investigation, beginning in 2017, was as a media advocate as much as a litigator. Sekulow appeared frequently on Fox News and CNN to defend the president. On Twitter and Facebook Sekulow defended seemingly unrelated policy positions on restrictive immigration and echoed right-wing tropes, like the sinister “Deep State.”
When I wrote the first of several profiles of Sekulow for the Los Angeles Times in 1993, there was no hint of the poised, polished, telegenic advocate he would become. He was just a young guy on the make, schlepping around a big, battered old briefcase like a weary Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Broadway classic, “Death of a Salesman.”
Despite our fundamental theological and political differences, I liked him. He was personable and had a warm, infectious sense of humor — perhaps a result of his Jewish genes. His jokes were gentle and self-deprecatory, in marked contrast to the harsh, mean-spirited variety I have encountered in many other evangelicals over the years, before and since.
Still, for all his attractions, I wrote quite critically about Sekulow for the Times. And while he didn’t agree with some assertions in my stories, he never personalized any pushback and didn’t hold my critical reporting against me.
But Sekulow brushes aside the notion that luck – when Moishe Rosen dropped the LAX appeal in his lap when he was essentially down and out – played a pivotal role in the way his legal career unfolded.
“I don’t call it luck,” he told me in an interview Monday (Jan. 20). “I don’t believe in chance.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he explained. “God orchestrates these things.”
(Mark I. Pinsky is author of "A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed." The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)