In his own life and his work fighting discrimination against people with disabilities, alumnus and outgoing EEOC Commissioner Paul Steven Miller has combined principle and pragmatism. The proof? After 10 years in Washington, people still think he’s a nice guy.
By Lewis I. Rice

 

 

During his summers as a student at Penn, Paul Steven Miller C’83 interned in the U.S. attorney’s office in New York. One of his bosses always wore a bow tie, a distinctive sartorial touch that grabbed the attention of the young aspiring attorney. Miller was inspired to make it his own signature style, so that whoever saw him for the first time would immediately think: There’s the lawyer with the bow tie.

Well, maybe not.

“I thought that, as I was starting a legal career, I needed something that set me apart from everybody else,” Miller says. “As if I didn’t have anything else.”

He certainly does now. He has a Penn undergraduate and Harvard Law pedigree, experience working in the White House, and 10 years of service on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Miller was also born with achondroplasia, a genetic condition that results in dwarfism, which sets him apart and is an ever-present part of him—but does not define him or his accomplishments, say those who know him.

“When I deal with Paul as a friend and colleague and a co-Penn alum, I would never say that his being a little person fades from my consciousness just because it’s so much a part of who he is and his identity in the world,” says classmate Elizabeth Cooper C’83, an associate professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York. “If I eliminated that knowledge of Paul, I would eliminate a big part of who he is. That having been said, if anyone looks at him solely as a little person, what a loss for them.”

In his career, Miller has fought against those who judge people on how they look or their gender, race, age, or nationality. After graduating from law school, he became director of litigation for the Western Law Center for Disability Rights, then deputy director of the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs and White House liaison to the disability community. One of the longest serving commissioners in EEOC history, he left the agency on June 30 to join the faculty at the University of Washington School of Law.

As commissioner, Miller spearheaded efforts to resolve charges of discrimination through mediation, helping to improve the agency’s long-time backlog. A member of the Health and Human Services Secretary’s Advisory Committee on Genetics, Health and Society, he helped settle the EEOC’s first court action against genetic testing in the workplace. In addition to making decisions on litigation and policy with the other four commission members in Washington, he has traveled to every state in America and several countries on behalf of the EEOC, becoming the agency’s most visible spokesperson—and exemplar—in the battle against discrimination.

Before Miller began fighting that battle for others, he fought it for himself. When he was a student at Harvard Law School during the mid-1980s, representatives from 45 law firms, enticed by Miller’s credentials, arranged meetings with him during on-campus recruitment sessions. None offered him a callback. One of them even explained why during the interview itself: The firm of course didn’t have a problem with him, a representative said. But their clients would think they were running a circus freak show if they hired him as an attorney.

At that time, he had no federal recourse. But the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 has made such overt discrimination rarer and has changed the culture of the American workplace, Miller says.

“I think that the reality for students with disabilities, for professionals with disabilities, is dramatically different today than it was a scant 15, 18 years ago,” he says. “I think that’s attributable to the ADA, to an education process that employers have begun to journey down … It has made America stronger, because it forces employers to focus more on people’s qualifications than on stereotypes about that individual’s disability.”

The charges still stream into the EEOC, however—an average of 80,000 a year during Miller’s tenure. And the injustices still drive him, like the case of a restaurant employee fired by his regional manager. The employee, who has mental retardation, had done nothing wrong. But the regional manager didn’t want “those kinds of people” working in the restaurant. The employee eventually recovered substantial damages—an example, says Miller, of the need to pursue litigation to protect employees and send a message to “recalcitrant employers and bad actors.”

His advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities stands out in his tenure at the EEOC, says Leslie Silverman, a commissioner appointed two years ago. She calls Miller “a leader in the disability rights area. I think he’s completely accessible to all people with disabilities. He’s very cognizant of their interests, and he’s always looking out for them.”

Silverman says she has often consulted with Miller on disability cases before the commission. On occasion, he has talked her into voting to pursue a case. She is a Republican and he a Democrat, but party lines are less important to both of them, she says, than getting things done.

He has been confirmed three times as commissioner, including in the highly rancorous period after the impeachment of President Clinton, who initially appointed him to the EEOC. He has gained bipartisan support, Miller says, because he has worked with his Republican colleagues, has been principled but pragmatic, and has always explained his decisions. His proudest achievement of all, though, is that after 10 years in partisan Washington, everyone still thinks he’s a nice guy.

“One of the best things about him is he develops friends and colleagues, people who respect him and like him even if they have a difference of opinion on the ultimate matter,” Cooper says.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/27/04

FEATURE: Signature Style
By Lewis I. Rice
Photography by Jim Graham

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