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By Debra Bruno
February 19, 2018
With members in all 50 states and more than 80 countries, the D.C. Bar’s Member Spotlight regularly features the people who make up our community. Read about your peers, their lives, and their work around the world.
In a city full of big egos, Jon Decker’s recent achievement might be hard to top.
The only daily member of the White House press corps with a law degree, the Fox News Radio correspondent found out late last year that he had passed the D.C. Bar exam.
That not only led to a shout-out in Politico’s Playbook, the go-to newsletter for Washington political insiders, but on December 5 it got the attention of White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.
A reporter asked Sanders if President Trump could be charged with obstruction of justice, and whether the White House’s legal counsel had looked into that question.
Sanders responded, “I’m not an attorney. And as far as I know, only Jon Decker in the room is.” Laughter ensued.
“And so if you want to ask him legal questions, you certainly can,” Sanders added.
That’s exactly what Decker, 50, hopes will happen, if not among the other members of the press corps, at least from listeners of Fox radio and viewers of Fox television, who might have questions about a range of legal issues.
How Decker got to be the only White House reporter with a law degree is a meandering story. A White House reporter since 1995, first with PBS’s Nightly Business Report (now produced by CNBC), Decker started his career as a financial analyst on Wall Street. “It was what you did in the ’80s,” he says. “I was not thinking, Is this what I really want to do?” he adds, although he realized after just a year that it wasn’t for him.
He went back to school to study international relations. While he was doing that, he started working as an assistant press secretary for Sen. John Heinz, the moderate Pennsylvania Republican who was the heir to the H.J. Heinz Company.
Heinz was killed in a plane accident on April 4, 1991, a date Decker recites instantly. In fact, Decker was on his way to pick up the senator at the airport when he got the news that Heinz and others, including some children on the ground, died in a mid-air collision with a helicopter.
That tragedy offered Decker a chance to examine what he might want to do next. “It was the end of a job I enjoyed—I really believed in what he believed in,” Decker says. “I decided in that moment to make a decision to either work for another politician or to pursue what I thought was my passion — journalism.”
Over the years, he worked for NBC in Miami and Washington, and for Reuters, Sirius XM Radio, and PBS, where he first worked for the Nightly Business Report and then as host for the show This Week in Business.
He moved to D.C. in 1995 to cover the White House, and has been here ever since. More than 20 years ago, it didn’t take as long for a reporter to get a “hard pass” to cover the White House, the laminated card that lets journalists enter the White House briefing room without going through a complicated security protocol each time. Since then, he’s covered the White House under 12 press secretaries and four administrations, eventually moving over to Fox Radio. He also contributes to Fox Business TV.
A few years ago, Decker decided that a law degree would set him apart and let him explain legal issues—with confidence—to his audience. “When there are questions on executive orders or the constitutionality of the president’s travel ban or when Supreme Court decisions are handed down, Fox depends on me to provide insight,” he says. His goal is to explain and distill concepts for the average listener who might not have any legal expertise.
It took Decker three and a half years of night classes at The George Washington University Law School (helped by a small tuition stipend from Fox). He timed it so that he would finish the course work before the beginning of the 2016 presidential election cycle, which meant finishing by December 2015. After that, he had to figure out when he could take the bar exam.
After he finished, the first available bar exam date was February 2016, in the middle of primary season. The second time it was offered was July 2016, in the midst of political conventions. The third time was February of 2017, just after the first 100 days of the Trump administration. Decker realized there would always be some reason not to take the exam, so he settled on July 2017.
Once he started studying, he put in a regular workday that ended at 5 p.m. After that, he’d remain in his snug radio booth in the press area of the White House where he’d study for three hours straight, Monday through Friday. On weekends he’d study from 5 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. without a break.
He passed. “For all of the things I’ve done professionally, I think it’s the biggest accomplishment of my life,” he says. But he has no plans to actually practice law. Having a law degree “opens doors,” he says, but he’s plenty busy with the White House, with serving on the board of the White House Correspondents Association, and with his love of tennis.
He and his wife recently returned from a trip to Australia, where they took in the Australian Open, completing what he calls the “Decker Slam” goal of visiting all of the tennis opens.
He would also like to improve his French, although that may be tough in a time when the news cycle is so fast. A big story in the past would last 24 hours; now it often changes by the hour, he says. “The president tweets on North Korea, and we focus on that. And then he makes a statement on Iran, and we’re off in a different direction.”
Even with the chaos, he says, “There’s not a day I don’t take it for granted. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
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