Editor’s Note: Members and friends of The Atlas Society provide us with a wealth of wisdom. Atlas Society supporter Jennifer Bukowsky is an award-winning trial and appellate criminal defense attorney in Columbia, Missouri. She and her husband Brant have two young sons—Blake and Gus Bukowsky. Her second home is on Twitter @esqonfire. Jennifer also shares her views on news, politics, current events & pop culture on her weekly radio and TV show, called, you guessed it, the “Jennifer Bukowsky Show.”
MM: You are an Ayn Rand fan. How did you first hear of Rand?
I read Anthem as part of a book club, and afterward I immediately downloaded Atlas Shrugged. It really blew my mind.
I have Ayn Rand on my list of suspected time travelers, and I just loved, loved, loved that book. I’m married to an entrepreneur, and my husband actually got in touch with the producers of the movie Atlas Shrugged Part 2, and helped them with their online advertising in exchange for getting me tickets to the premiere, which fell on my birthday, so we got to attend that in DC.
MM: Oh, that’s great! So you were an adult when you first read Rand. That’s kind of a separate little club.
JB: Yes, I felt like I was a late bloomer. I went around the room at one of these dinners and everyone's like, “I read her when I was 14” or “I read her when I was 16.”
MM: I was well into adulthood before I read Ayn Rand for the first time. I’d always heard that her novels are for kids, and they certainly are, but not exclusively. I enjoyed reading them. Not even a guilty pleasure. First-class literature if you ask me.
JB: Definitely. I recommend Rand to people all the time. Anthem is a great way to get started. It's a little confusing at first. When my oldest son read it he found it a little hard to understand at first.
MM: That’s true. Rand just drops you into this post-apocalyptic collectivist society where everything is unfamiliar. I think ANTHEM: The Graphic Novel is a big help in that regard, seeing Dan Parsons’ illustrations. Even so, I think we’re supposed to be upset and unsettled by the opening.
JB: It definitely pulled me in, but it puts other people off I've found. I obviously proselytize about Rand a lot.
MM: How long have you been involved with The Atlas Society?
JB: I learned about The Atlas Society when I started having a midlife crisis. I started taking the time to go to these conferences. I started going to the Federalist Society, CPAC, and Reason Weekend. I got three different takeaways from each: At the Federalist Society I discovered I'm not as smart as I think I am. Around here I’m a smart attorney, but there, I’m definitely not the smart attorney in the room. At CPAC I discovered I'm not as important as I thought I was. And at Reason Weekend I’m reminded I'm not as cool as I thought it was.
MM: [Laughter.] That’s funny.
JB: I met Jennifer Grossman at a Reason Weekend.
MM: And you were just at CPAC. While you were there, you messaged Jennifer Grossman about hearing Ayn Rand quoted during the conference. Tell me what you heard.
JB: The theme of CPAC this year was America versus Socialism. I was at the Ronald Reagan dinner on Friday night at CPAC, which is this formal dinner. They give out a big award. I've attended a few times before. And this is a conservative group okay. Usually I'm the conservative one in the room. I'm not the most conservative person among this set. I'm not the most religious person either. There are very religious people there. I’ve gone to a lot of Republican gatherings over the years, locally, small to big groups. They often start with a prayer. They say the pledge of allegiance, and they sing the national anthem. So I’m nodding my head and listening along to Jamie Burke, who is on the Board of the American Conservative Union, recite a prayer at this huge gathering, and she starts quoting Ayn Rand from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal:
Thank you for the great American capitalist economy, and help us to remember, as Ayn Rand once said, “America’s abundance was created not by public sacrifices to some vague ‘common good,’ but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes.”
So I was surprised and wanted JAG to know. I’ve never heard Rand quoted at that event before.
MM: Would you say that Ayn Rand’s ideas are resurgent in at least some conservative circles?
JB: Yes! Especially as you see the so-called “democratic socialism” taking off in the country. A lot more people who, like Ayn Rand, came from communist and socialist countries, are speaking out. I hear her name mentioned more often than I did before. It was popular, I did hear it among establishment types when Paul Ryan from Wisconsin was the Speaker, because he was an Ayn Rand guy. After that I didn’t hear her name come up too often, but it is coming up a lot more often now. In libertarian circles too, of course. And part of that is thanks to the expanding reach of The Atlas Society – you guys are rocking it on social media, the Draw My Life videos are killer, and you’re at most of the student conferences at a retail level, introducing the next generation to the ideas of Ayn Rand.
MM: Have you always been a conservative?
No. I was born on Hillary's birthday, and I used to think she was great. I was a Liberal Democrat in college. I came from an apolitical family, but one parent is a Liberal Democrat. I didn’t identify at all with the Republican Party, either, especially because I'm more of a libertarian Republican.
I actually had as a guest on the show, the partner of a law professor at Missou, one of our few conservative faculty members, who used to be the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, which is a group of gay Republicans. I told him that I could not say that I was a Republican because I supported gay marriage and he told me that that was the stupidest reason he’d ever heard. But I came out of the closet as a Republican when I was still a public defender, toward the end of my tenure, so that was an interesting moment.
Before that I actually ran a campaign for a Democratic judge, and I got to interact with all the Democrats around here and see behind the scenes with them.
I've been involved for at least a decade now with Republican politics and proud to have been one of the earliest advocates for criminal justice reform on the right. I’m kind of a unicorn in that regard, so I go down to the legislature, I'm nearby, to testify for the public defender or the bar or on individual liberty issues like indigent defense, or against the ridiculous bills that the legislators come up with constantly.
MM: Can you give me an example?
JB: Sure. Several years ago they were going to make texting while driving illegal. The statute was so broad that, theoretically, reading a billboard or looking at the bank clock would also come under that. I'm like, “Are you thinking this through? A police officer would be able to pull over anyone because they see a glow come from the car under suspicion of texting while driving, and even seize your phone as evidence. Do you really want police to be able to pull over anyone they want any time without any wrongdoing? We already have careless and imprudent driving on the books.”
So that was killed – except eventually, years later, they got it adopted for people under 21.
I was also appointed to the expungement committee and on the criminal code revision committee, on the defense side. I testified in support of expanding our expungement laws and to clean up the criminal code. They also wanted to get rid of the public defender system and pay private attorneys like pennies to take these cases instead, and that was not going to be workable either.
I have a bill being argued in the House today finally, which I filed years ago while still a public defender. I realized that the only jobs ex-convicts can get are entry-level jobs in construction and fast food. They can't work anywhere that sells lottery tickets or alcohol, so not in restaurants or gas stations or convenience stores, for example. If we just change that one little condition, that's going to quadruple the number of entry-level jobs that these people could apply for and give employers freedom to hire who they want.
I've also been there to support the Fresh Start Bill, which almost passed last year and is supposed to pass this year. It would eliminate for some 60 different occupational licenses the prohibition against applying for a license if you have a criminal conviction. A conviction by itself can’t be a bar for getting that license. A rejection has to be directly related to the license that someone is trying to get. Hopefully that goes through so employers can hire who they want to hire, and people can have more opportunities in The Show-Me state.
MM: Tell me about your background. You are an accomplished constitutional and criminal defense attorney in Columbia, Missouri. What was your career path like?
JB: I started out as a CPA. I went to the University of Missouri as an undergrad and got my bachelors and masters in accounting, and took a job in St. Louis as an auditor. I moved back to Columbia a few years later with my fiancé, who was starting a business there, and I decided to go to law school. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. The most interesting thing I did as a CPA is more boring than the most boring thing I've done as a lawyer. I worked as a public defender for several years. working on 1000 cases, opening and closing more than a case per day.
It was quite the workload, just unending. But I didn't go to law school to be a half-assed attorney. Then I had a client who didn't want to take a crappy deal. It crossed my mind that it would be easier to convince this person to take a bad deal than it would be to convince the jerk prosecutor to offer something fair. Once that thought entered my head, I knew I had to leave, because I didn't go to law school to sell people out.
So I started my own law firm and grew it to include a couple of associates and several staff. Eight employees total. And we handled a lot of big cases. I continued to do public defender conflict work and contract work and pro bono cases, including innocence cases, habeas cases. I handled two big cases in which I got innocent individuals freed who had wrongfully served prison time for over 20 years. And I taught the Innocence Clinic at the law school.
MM: You are also the host of the Jennifer Bukowsky Show, a talk radio program in Columbia. How did you get from the courtroom to the recording studio?
JB: I started eight years ago going on the radio an hour a week as a guest on the Gary Nolan show. It was the one fun thing I allowed myself. I’d get to the radio station, and Gary would just present me with something and ask me what I thought. The accountant in me would say do your due diligence, don’t speak. And the attorney in me would say do your research. But the entertainer in me just started running her mouth. Then last year they offered me my own show. I was turning 40 and instead of buying myself a convertible for my midlife crisis I built a T.V. studio in my law firm.
MM: This is an election year, with a self-identified Democratic Socialist a candidate for the Democratic nomination. What advice do you have for young people who may be attracted to socialism?
JB: Don't be a sucker. A government that is big enough to give you everything you want could take away everything you have. Socialism has killed over 100 million people in 100 years. Ultimately, do you want liberty or do you want slavery? Socialism is false promises and no freedom.
We have had a lot of people make a lot of sacrifices in this country for you to be able to enjoy your freedom. You can vote your way into socialism, but you will have to shoot your way out of it, as the people of Venezuela are unfortunately learning right now.
MM: Socialism is always presented as “We’ll give you what you want and need.” But that is not what happens. What they mean is, “We will give you what we think you should have.” And over time, that turns out to be nothing.
JB: My son is reading Animal Farm. I don’t want to come off as wearing a tinfoil hat, but the things that are going on in that book, like the chanting “4 legs good 2 legs bad,” the different strategies or P. R. spin the one pig is doing, there's a lot of that going on now with the Green New Deal and the like. Do you want to be one of the sucker animals that doesn't see that and ends up suffering?
MM: Thanks for being willing to say that. I really enjoyed talking to you today and getting the chance to hear about your career – your willingness to accept risk, your ability to find opportunities in changing circumstances, about how you adopted and held on to principles, your work ethic, your willingness to fight for freedom and for our rights. And of course about Ayn Rand. Is there anything else you want to add? Anything you want people to know?
MM: Great talking to you.
JB: Great talking to you, Marilyn!