Rex E. Lee, 61, former president of Brigham Young University and solicitor general of the United States during the Reagan administration, died Monday at the Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo after a lengthy battle with cancer.
An avowed conservative, Lee overcame feminists’ anger generated by his opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment to become Reagan’s chief advocate before the U.S. Supreme Court for four years, arguing a total of 59 cases.
His legal ideology was propounded in his voluminous writings, most notably “A Lawyer Looks at the Constitution,” which cited the high court’s rulings on school prayer, due process, equal protection and abortion during the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s as examples of judicial excess.
Lee wrote that the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling legalizing abortion gave the judiciary “the license to roam at will through the territory of legislative policymaking.”
After growing up in St. Johns, Ariz., Lee served a three-year mission in Mexico for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before earning his bachelor’s degree from BYU in 1960. He was student body president during his senior year.
Lee graduated at the top of his class from the University of Chicago Law School, a center of legal conservatism, before clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White in 1963. From 1964 to 1971, he worked for the law firm of Jennings, Strouss & Salmon. In 1971, he became the founding dean of the BYU Law School.
His eight years as dean of the law school were interrupted by a two-year stint as head of the Justice Department’s civil division during the Ford administration. Then, in 1981, came the nomination as solicitor general.
An unsuccessful battle to block his appointment was led by the National Organization for Women, which objected strongly to the ERA opposition he espoused in another of his books, “A Lawyer Looks at the Equal Rights Amendment.” Lee defended the book as a scholarly study of the amendment, and his appointment was confirmed without major difficulty.
Lee dedicated himself to his work before the court--like most of his predecessors, winning most of his cases there.
In 1985, he left the government to join the firm of Sidley & Austin, where he served as a partner until his appointment as president of BYU in 1989. As BYU’s chief, he oversaw a major fund-raising campaign, directed a campus rebuilding program and launched planning efforts that defined the university’s goals for the 21st century.
“In spite of the health challenges that he faced, including two forms of cancer, his leadership was energetic, spiced with wit and full of optimism,” said Merrill J. Bateman, who would succeed Lee at BYU.
By last summer, it became apparent that Lee was losing his eight-year struggle with lymphoma and peripheral neuropathy, a neurological disorder. He decided that his dwindling energy necessitated his retirement, effective Jan. 1.
Lee, who was hospitalized in the weeks preceding his death, is survived by his wife, the former Janet Griffin, seven children and 10 grandchildren.