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Indiana legal community remembers Birch Bayh

March 14, 2019

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

Former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, whose career in politics started in 1954 when as a 27-year-old he was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives and extended to 18 years in the U.S. Senate where he authored two amendments to the Constitution and made a run for president, died of pneumonia Thursday at his home in Easton, Maryland. He was 91.

His first taste of politics came as an undergraduate at Purdue University when in the spring of 1950 he ran for president of his senior class, according to the Birch Bayh Biography at the Indiana University archives. He won and noted the experience was a turning point in his life.

A few years after returning to family farm in Shirkieville, Bayh and his wife, Marvella, began a successful campaign for the Indiana House of Representatives. He rose quickly in the Statehouse, becoming Democratic minority leader then, at 30, served as the youngest speaker in Indiana history.

State leaders remembered Bayh and his legacy in public service. The Indiana Senate observed a moment of silence during its session Thursday morning in honor of Bayh.

“Birch Bayh was a trailblazer who dedicated himself to improving the lives of all Hoosiers,” said Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb. “His remarkable legislative and personal legacy transformed the country and will live on for years to come.” Holcomb directed flags to be flown at half-staff statewide in Bayh’s honor.

Indiana Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, and Democratic Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, highlighted Bayh’s leadership and dedication to his constituents.

“Sen. Bayh was a true servant leader and embodied all of the values that we strive to attain in his state,” Lanane said. “His concern for and ability to relate to his constituents made him beloved by the people of the State of Indiana.”

While serving in the Statehouse, Bayh, with encouragement from his wife, enrolled in Indiana University Maurer School of Law. He moved with Marvella and 2-year-old son Evan into a one-bedroom apartment on the Bloomington campus.

“Sen. Bayh will leave a lasting legacy, not only as a distinguished senator and statesman but also as a good friend of the Maurer School of Law and as a member of our Academy of Law Alumni Fellows, the highest honor the school can bestow,” Maurer Dean Austen Parrish said. “Each year, new law students at Orientation are told about his work with Title IX and other historic legislation. All of us at the law school community are grateful for his many contributions to our state and our nation.”

Inspired by the rise of John F. Kennedy, Bayh soon turned to national politics and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1962. The liberal Democrat had a back-slapping, humorous campaigning style that helped him win three narrow elections to the Senate starting in 1962, at a time when Republicans won Indiana in four of the five presidential elections.

Bayh’s hold on the seat ended with a loss to Dan Quayle during the 1980 Ronald Reagan-led Republican landslide.

During his time on Capitol Hill, Bayh was the only non-Founding Father to author two amendments to the Constitution: the 25th Amendment, which dealt with presidential and vice presidential succession; and the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

He also wrote Title IX to the Higher Education Act, landmark legislation that prohibits discrimination based on gender.

Attorney Bill Moreau, partner at Barnes & Thornburg, was a staffer in Bayh’s Senate office from 1977 to 1981. He remembered when the Senator was being honored by the American Bar Association for his work. However, Bayh got stuck on the Senate floor, so he sent Moreau to be his surrogate.

As the young staffer stepped forward to accept the award on Bayh’s behalf, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti acknowledged Bayh’s commitment to service.

“This young man must be one of the luckiest staffers on Capitol Hill to be able to work for Sen. Birch Bayh,” Civiletti told the crowd. “Just as a measure of Sen. Bayh’s priorities, he had the choice of being with us today or on the Senate floor. He chose the latter. And the bill he’s sponsoring will extend basic civil rights to those who are the weakest in our society, the institutionalized. And that’s why the American Bar Association is honoring Sen. Bayh and why I am honored to call him my friend.”

After he had retired from public life, Bayh was honored by the federal judiciary when the federal courthouse in downtown Indianapolis was renamed the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in 2003.

Judge Richard Young of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana was just out of college in Iowa when he encountered Bayh campaigning for president in 1975. Young was inspired to join the campaign and became one of a handful of staffers barnstorming the entire Hawkeye State.

Years later, after moving to Indiana and establishing himself as a lawyer, Young was recommended to the federal bench. At his confirmation hearing in the U.S. Senate, Young was joined by Bayh. Young remembers then Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, greeting Bayh and exchanging pleasantries.

“I have been truly blessed to have the friendship of Birch Bayh,” Young said at the dedication of the courthouse, “and I believe all Hoosiers have been blessed to have this extraordinary individual represent us in the Indiana House of Representatives and the United States Senate.”

In addition to his wife, Kitty, he is survived by two sons: former Indiana senator and governor Birch Evans Bayh III, known as Evan, and Christopher J. Bayh, an attorney and partner at Barnes & Thornburg in Indianapolis. He leaves four grandchildren.

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