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UK Law’s Appalachian Law Caucus Brings Long-Serving Congressman Hal Rogers to Campus

U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers recently visited the University of Kentucky College of Law to discuss his career and current issues in Appalachia, including broadband access and the opioid crisis.

The event was sponsored by the UK Appalachian Law Caucus.

Rogers, who grew up in Monticello, Kentucky, received a Bachelor of Arts and a law degree from UK. He clerked for John Y. Brown Sr., a well-known criminal law attorney, then practiced law in Somerset after graduation.

Rogers eventually became Commonwealth’s Attorney for Pulaski and Rockcastle counties. He recalled preparing for two or three trials every day.

“You didn’t always have to try three a day, but you had to prepare for them,” Rogers said. “That is such a rewarding experience for a lawyer to be able to duel in the sun in the middle of a courtroom. …I’m sad to hear that the trial by jury is fading away. It is a great tradition in this country.”

Rogers was first elected to Congress in 1980. He represents Kentucky’s 5th Congressional District, which includes much of Southern and Eastern Kentucky.

“Congress is a great place,” Rogers said. “It reflects the country really well. Of course, it was designed that way – to take people from every nook and cranny of the country, put them under one roof and turn them loose. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Appalachian Law Caucus President Mitchum Whitaker, a second-year UK Law student, said Rogers’ presentation gave students a good opportunity to learn from someone with nearly four decades of leadership experience.

 “Likely, there was a future judge executive or representative, or perhaps senator or governor, here in the crowd today,” Whitaker said. “I think it’s important that the leaders of tomorrow listen to the leaders of today.”

Whitaker, who is from Whitesburg, Kentucky, said Rogers addressed a lot of relevant issues for law students and the Appalachian Law Caucus.

“Congressman Rogers’ visit and the efforts of the Appalachian Law Caucus demonstrate the geographical diversity represented in the student population at UK Law,” said Danny Murphy, senior assistant dean and chief diversity officer at UK Law. “This conversation allowed students to envision their greatest potential while also raising awareness about issues impacting Appalachia. We can use our positions in society, afforded by the privilege of having a law degree, to make a real difference in the economic and social well-being of traditionally underserved communities, including the Appalachian region of the United States.”

Rogers said poverty and poor health have been major issues in his congressional district. Organizations such as Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, are working to improve the economy and quality of life in Appalachia. The non-partisan grassroots organization launched the first annual SOAR Summit in December 2013 with 1,700 attendees from Southern and Eastern Kentucky. He said it is exciting to see people come together and rethink their futures.

One of the first ideas that stemmed from the SOAR initiative was improving rural broadband connectivity in Kentucky’s Appalachian region with a new high-speed, high-capacity network, which later turned into the KentuckyWired project. Rogers said KentuckyWired will significantly improve the region’s economy – luring high-tech companies and enhancing entrepreneurship – across the state and in Eastern Kentucky.

Asked about opioid addiction, Rogers said, “It hit my area like a bombshell.”

In 2003, Rogers convened sheriffs, judges, doctors, ministers and others to discuss how to combat the problem, launching Operate UNITE, which stands for Unlawful Narcotics Investigations, Treatment and Education. The organization uses a multi-pronged approach to bring justice to drug dealers, offer treatment vouchers for those who can’t afford it, and prevention programs in schools and communities across the region. UNITE also established the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in 2012, which has grown into the largest gathering of cross-disciplinary stakeholders and federal leaders in the country, including the last three U.S. presidents.

“It has become the national headquarters of opioid prevention,” Rogers said.