A Man for Many Seasons: Johnny Killian and the CRS

Posted December 3, 2007 at 6:29pm

Johnny Killian’s 1963 Remington typewriter still sits in his office, proudly displayed near tall stacks of court briefs, newspaper articles and copies of blog postings. It’s been with him since he started his long career as a constitutional expert at the Congressional Research Service — one that has spanned the appointment of 16 Supreme Court justices and countless Congressional fights over constitutional law.

After 44 years on the job, the 70-year-old Killian has a list of dedicated Congressional clients (he won’t give names) who ask him to provide expert advice. And as an authority on constitutional law, those questions relate to some of the most public disputes of the day — most recently, he’s been working on Guantanamo Bay detainees’ right to habeas corpus. The Supreme Court will hear a case on the issue Wednesday.

All CRS employees use their expertise to answer Members’ questions, but in the American Law Division, Killian has been doing it longer than anyone else — he celebrated his 44th anniversary in September. He’s second in longevity agency-wide as well, behind a 47-year specialist in the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division.

On a recent Tuesday, Killian took a break from moving into his recently renovated office in the Madison Building, taking a seat among the stacks of papers and books waiting to be organized. Leaning back in his chair, he talked openly about himself and his life growing up in rural North Carolina — but was careful to keep his work for Members confidential. He is friendly and relaxed, and his conversation occasionally turns to self- deprecation.

“Southerners tend to be storytellers and go off on tangents,” Killian said. “I’m like that.”

Added Charles Doyle, a criminal law specialist who has worked with Killian since 1968: “He’s no man of pomp.”

Killian took a job at CRS straight out of law school, thinking he would get a few years of experience and move back home, but he never left.

The job has all kinds of perks, he said. It’s engaging, academic, rewarding. He reads the morning newspaper and knows what he’ll be working on that day.

“I guess the kind of things I like to do, the kind of things I felt good about doing in law school, were public policy issues and the like,” he said. “I wasn’t drawn to private practice, representing people or representing clients in tax cases and all of that. I was simply interested in something that did have a public policy aspect to it and this fit the bill.”

[IMGCAP(1)]Killian’s breadth of knowledge can be intimidating. He reads all day — newspapers, political and legal blogs, court briefs. At home, he turns to philosophy and anthropology; if he thinks that his reading speed is slowing down, he switches to a fast-moving mystery novel. He can give a date for court cases and national events — and he’s almost always “right on the money,” Doyle said.

Killian claims his memory isn’t as good as it once was. His work — the briefs, cases and history — all come to him quickly, he said, but his day-to-day memory is lagging. When talking about his personal life, he stumbles a bit on the dates of long-ago vacations and a few names. He’s thinking about retirement, though he said he doesn’t know when he will make that move.

“I mean, I’m 70 and I hate to think I’m slowing down, but I am,” he said “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I just resist getting out of bed for a little while.”

He seems to be the only one noticing. Killian is still the one to go to for tough questions, his colleagues say, the one who reads dozens of Supreme Court briefs and remembers them. They also credit him with playing a large role in keeping the atmosphere of the American Law Division collegial.

Hints of this comity are all around the division’s somewhat cramped quarters. Office doors are always open. Common rooms house shelves of law books and useful texts, such as the U.S. Code. Employees constantly work together on projects.

In fact, many hired never work anywhere else.

Employees stay on so long that the agency has had to enact a “succession plan” to fill the upcoming holes of all the retirement-age employees (though there isn’t a mandatory retirement age). Each year, several new employees are hired, and a program ensures that current specialists help them pick up the institutional memory.

But colleagues say Killian has been encouraging such interaction for decades. Mort Rosenberg, a CRS specialist in American public law and a veteran of 35 years himself, remembers sitting in Killian’s office every weekday morning back in the ’70s, debating with a half-dozen others the news of the day. Over coffee and doughnuts, they would talk and argue for an hour before starting the day’s work.

Now, Killian facilitates a more structured meeting every Thursday, more structured than in the past because CRS is that much bigger.

When Killian began at CRS, there were 200 employees agency-wide; now there are almost 700.

“It’s a great place to go to in the morning,” Rosenberg said. “The collegiality is inspired by guys like Johnny.”

Killian grew up in Maggie Valley, N.C., a rural town named in the late 19th century after the first postmaster’s daughter. During summers, Killian worked on his father’s small farm (“He was one of the evil doers. He grew tobacco,” Killian said). The job consisted of handling the sticky plants and picking off “big fat worms” that ate the leaves.

“My own philosophy about tobacco, having worked there summers and that sort of thing, was it was awful stuff to work around,” he said. “You come out of the tobacco field looking as if you’ve been in a coal mine all day.”

He has never been a smoker.

As a teenager, Killian was a voracious reader, picking up not only books but also his county’s newspaper, “The Mountaineer.” By the time he was 15, he had convinced his parents to buy him a subscription to The New York Times. It was always two or three days late, he said, “but it was news to me.”

After earning a political science bachelor’s degree and a law degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he moved to Washington and landed a job at CRS.

Now he is the author of hundreds of reports, some of which have shown up in court decisions. One of his greatest achievements is something he calls “The Annotated,” a large reference book on the history of interpretation of the Constitution. Released in book form every 10 years and updated biannually, the book allows Members, lawyers and others to quickly reference the judicial history of any constitutional amendment. For decades, Killian was the editor, only recently stepping aside and taking on an editor emeritus role.

Even now, he can talk about many of the cases referenced within the large book without opening it up. His recall may have been helped from years of writing “The Annotated” with his Remington, which forced Killian and others to rewrite far more of the book for each revision than is necessary with a computer.

“It was a mess to do because you had to in effect start all over again,” he said. “This thing is 2,200 pages long, but now with a computer you can simply go through making changes and the like.”

The computer has changed more than the production of such references. Killian has had to adapt to a new way of research, following information through the clutter of the Internet rather than the straightforward time line of books.

He’s now mastered the technique, but it took years of convincing. Killian used his Remington — the same one given to him when he was first hired — until the 1990s.

“I was a Luddite, but not a dyed-in-the-wool Luddite,” he said with a laugh. “I was greatly surprised that it was actually a labor-saving device.”

But he hasn’t given up the Remington just yet. It’s still in good condition; all it needs is a new ribbon.