Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell to Receive Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law

February 28, 2012

George J. Mitchell, a former U.S. Senate majority leader known for efforts at brokering peace in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, will be awarded the 2012 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Law as part of the University of Virginia's Founder's Day celebration in April.

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George Mitchell

"Senator Mitchell is an ideal Jefferson Medalist," said Law School Dean Paul Mahoney. "Like Jefferson, an intellectual, a leader, a legislator and a diplomat, Senator Mitchell has served the nation in many capacities but always with judgment, wisdom and fair-mindedness."

Mitchell, 78, most recently served as special envoy for Middle East peace under President Barack Obama, a role in which he led American efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. When Mitchell stepped down in May, Obama said in a statement that Mitchell was "a tireless advocate for peace."

"His deep commitment to resolving conflict and advancing democracy has contributed immeasurably to the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security," Obama said. "George told me when he took this job that he would put in a couple of years, and I'm so glad he did. He is — by any measure — one of the finest public servants that our nation has ever had."

Mitchell, a native of Maine, was one of five children born to George Mitchell Sr. and Mary Saad Mitchell. His mother was an immigrant from Lebanon and his father was the orphan son of Irish immigrants.

He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1954, served in the U.S. Army, and in 1961 received his law degree from Georgetown University after studying as a part-time student.

Prior to serving as the Obama administration's point person on Middle East peace, Mitchell had a long career in public service.

A Democrat from Maine, Mitchell entered the Senate in 1980 and went on to serve as Senate majority leader from 1989 until 1995. While in the Senate, he led the successful 1990 reauthorization of the Clean Air Act, which included new controls on acid rain toxins, and was the author of the first national oil spill prevention and clean-up law. He led the Senate in its passage of the first child care bill and was principal author of the low-income housing tax credit program. And he played a key role in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement and creation of the World Trade Organization.

After leaving the Senate in 1995, Mitchell was named special adviser to President Bill Clinton on Ireland and served as chairman of the Northern Ireland peace talks. Under his leadership, the negotiations resulted in the Good Friday Peace Agreement, which brought an end to decades of conflict. He documented his experience in "Making Peace," one of four books he has authored.

For his service in Northern Ireland, Mitchell received numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor given by the U.S. Government.

Mitchell also served as chairman of an international fact-finding committee on violence in the Middle East in 2000 and 2001. The committee's recommendation, known as the Mitchell Report, was endorsed by the administration of President George W. Bush, the European Union and other governments.

He led an investigation into the use of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball in 2006-07. He also was chairman of a special commission that probed allegations of impropriety in the Olympic Games bidding process. And he served as the independent overseer of the American Red Cross Liberty Fund, which helped victims and their families following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mitchell also was chairman of the law firm DLA Piper; chairman of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Co.; a member of the board of the Boston Red Sox; and director of several companies, including Federal Express, Xerox, Staples, Unilever and Starwood Hotels and Resorts. In 2008 Time Magazine named Mitchell one of the 100 most-influential persons in the world.

Mitchell also founded the Mitchell Institute, a nonprofit organization that seeks to increase the likelihood that young people from Maine will aspire to, pursue and achieve a college education. Since 1995, the scholarship program has provided more than $8.5 million in financial aid to more than 1,900 Maine students.

He is married to Heather MacLachlan and has two children.

The Thomas Jefferson Medal in Law and its counterparts in architecture and citizen leadership are the highest outside honors bestowed by the University, which does not grant honorary degrees. The awards recognize the achievements of those who embrace endeavors that Jefferson — author of the Declaration of Independence, third U.S. president and founder of the University of Virginia — excelled in and held in high regard.

Sponsored jointly by the University and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Monticello, the annual awards are conferred during the University's Founder's Day celebrations, held around Jefferson's April 13 birthday. In addition to receiving a medal struck for the occasion, recipients will attend ceremonies in the Rotunda and a dinner at Monticello.

Mitchell will receive his award at a ceremony for invited guests on April 13 at a luncheon in the Dome Room of the Rotunda, alongside fellow recipients Rafael Moneo (architecture) and Jessica Tuchman Mathews (citizen leadership). Mitchell also will speak at the Law School at 10 a.m. in Caplin Pavilion.


Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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