Power Lunch: Charles Ogletree

The internationally renowned legal theorist reveals the inside scoop on the Obamas, talks race relations at Harvard, and shares his thoughts on the new Supreme Court nominee.

charles ogletree

Photographs by Ken Richardson

Does Garland stand a chance at getting appointed by Congress?

He certainly has the qualifications, but his problem is that he’s appointed by President Obama, and the Republicans finally won the House and they run the Senate. Merrick is a great person. He would be a big plus for the Supreme Court—but I suspect he’s not going to get a hearing.

Does that drive you crazy?

It drives me crazy. It’s not that they’re against Merrick Garland; they’re against President Obama and anybody that he nominates.

What are you hearing in the legal circles about Garland’s nomination?

Merrick Garland is a white male, and a lot of friends and organizations have contacted me saying President Obama should nominate a black woman. I said, “You’re right; I think that needs to be President Obama’s next option.” He’s appointed two women, but they’re white women.

Is there one question from the bar exam that still haunts you?

There are a lot of questions. What you learn in law school has very little to do with what you have to understand for the bar exam. I passed the bar on the second try.

Did you watch The People v. O.J. Simpson?

I did.

What did you think of it?

I think it told a little bit of the story, but it dramatized a lot of the story. And people love it. Even my wife. We sat there watching it, and my wife is saying, “Charles, did that happen?” I say, “No, that didn’t happen.” And she says, “Charles, did that happen?” And I say, “No, that didn’t happen.” And she says, “Charles, did that happen?” And I say, “Yeah, that happened.”

You taught and mentored both Barack and Michelle Obama. Who’s better at arguing?

This is a tough question because I want to be honest. The best arguer is Michelle. She knows exactly what to do. When Michelle was in my class, I was convinced that she was going to be on the Supreme Court, because she was just that talented and that gifted.

Michelle Obama gets to call you by your nickname, “Tree”—but do all of your students?

I allow seniors when they’re graduating to call me “Tree.” I had one student who was only in his second year, but he says, “I’m going to come see you, Tree.” I said, “No, Professor Charles Ogletree.” I waited until he was about to graduate to say, “Now you can call me Tree.”

Are race relations in the United States worse than they were before President Obama took office?

I want to separate President Obama from this, but the answer is yes. It’s worse in the second term when you think about Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, places in California, and South Carolina. It’s worse. You see black men getting killed, often by police officers. And I have to say, some of my best friends are police officers. My sister was a police officer who was killed. I set up a scholarship for whoever could tell me who killed my sister—and we found out just last year that she was killed by another sheriff, an African-American male.

Recently, Harvard Law decided to drop its crest because of its historic ties to slavery. Do you agree with that decision?

I think it makes a lot of sense. To my surprise, people who opposed the crest were not just me, but white and brown and Asian and Latino and African-American men and women.

Did it take too long to get rid of that crest?

It did take a long time. And I didn’t know what it was about until students started talking about it and complaining about it, and then we understood what it meant, and it was not an easy issue.

Do you think the elite nature of Harvard leads some people to think that the university doesn’t have race issues or race problems?

If they look at things closely, they’ll find that it’s different, but it still has race problems.