Jamie Raskin

Vice Chair Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., left, listens as Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., speaks as the House Select Committee Investigating the Jan. 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol holds a hearing on July 12. 

Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Max Raskin had a regard for the rule of law, and for the U.S. Constitution from which it extended, that was so sincere, and so majestic in character, that young lawyers would linger in his chambers in the turbulent last days of the 1960s to feel the touchstone of an American experiment that seemed otherwise to be in flux. A juror, sitting for a trial over which Raskin presided, was so inspired as to memorialize the jurist in a poem that began:

From high behind the judge’s bench,

His great stone face is stern of style,

And yet how wondrous to see

His eyes and lips light to smile.

How reassuring that we see

While justice must be cold in part,

It is administered by one

Who has a warm and tender heart.

Born in Latvia just after the turn of the last century, Max Raskin understood the Constitution as a bulwark against injustice and tyranny. It underpinned a system that, at its best, allowed the child of working-class Jewish immigrants to obtain a law degree before he was 25 and to win election as the city attorney of a great American metropolis before he was 30.

Raskin embraced the egalitarian sensibility of his friend and ally Dan Hoan, the long-serving socialist Milwaukee mayor who once refused to greet the visiting king of Belgium because, Hoan said, "I stand for the common man; to hell with kings."

As Milwaukee's nationally recognized city attorney and an appointed and elected judge, Max Raskin nurtured a deep faith in the principle that America's promise would only be realized as "a nation of laws, not men." That faith lives on in his great-nephew, U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin. The Maryland Democrat has served as a respected member of the House Judiciary Committee and as the lead impeachment manager for the Senate trial during the second impeachment of then-President Donald Trump. He is now an essential participant in the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.

Raskin, who will be in Madison Friday evening to participate in the Cap Times Idea Fest on the University of Wisconsin campus, was, before his 2016 election to the House, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law and one of the nation’s most distinguished commentators on the Constitution as a tool for checking and balancing errant executives.

Raskin knows more about the constitutional conflicts that have defined American history than any member of Congress. So when he says — in his current role as a Jan. 6 committee member — that the wrongdoing by Donald Trump “cannot really be compared to anything else a president has done,” trust him.

Raskin has explained that Trump’s attempted coup involved far more serious conspiratorial activity than the scheming that ultimately forced former President Richard Nixon from office. Indeed, said Raskin, “It makes the Watergate break-in look like the work of Cub Scouts.”

As with the Watergate inquiry, the current investigation has featured testimony from a former White House counsel. Trump’s lawyer, Pat Cipollone, provided evidence that was just as devastating as that of Nixon lawyer John Dean.

With the testimony of Cipollone and others who were in the White House that day, the evidence of Trump’s insurrectionist conspiracy has fallen into place. And that evidence paints a picture of a former president who was, and is, a dangerous authoritarian who needs to be held to account, both legally and in the court of public opinion.

Trump is regularly described as the worst president in American history — even more foul than 19th century reprobates such as Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson — and his efforts to cling to the presidency after his November 2020 defeat are justifiably understood by members of the Jan. 6 committee as an attempted coup. Yet because of the political cacophony that Trump and his Republican associates have created over the past seven years, even Americans who disapprove of the former president can become so distracted by the circus that they lose sight of the crisis.

We’ve all heard the Democratic Party stalwarts and cable TV pundits who complain that no matter what the Jan. 6 committee’s ongoing deliberations reveal, the 2022 midterm elections will be decided by voters who are primarily worried about inflation and perhaps even a serious resurgence of the coronavirus. Those issues matter a great deal, and it is good to remember that the Watergate controversy played out against a backdrop of economic turbulence that did Nixon’s approval ratings considerable harm. But Raskin is right when he says that Trump is in a league of his own when it comes to presidential abuses of office.

Raskin recognizes that Trump’s antidemocratic ambitions and the coup plotting in which he engaged will ultimately mark the former president as a traitor to his oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

For Jamie Raskin, however, this is about much more than the personalities and this politics of the moment. This is about assuring the abuses of Jan. 6, 2021, are never repeated.

It is noble work — work that his great uncle, Max Raskin, would well regard and encourage.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@captimes.com and @NicholsUprising. 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.