A prominent Republican leader in the Georgia General Assembly during the long transition from Democratic to Republican control of state government in the late twentieth century, Mike Egan was also a widely respected Atlanta lawyer and a top Justice Department official under U.S.president Jimmy Carter.
Michael Joseph Egan Jr. was born on August 8, 1926, in Savannah to Elise Robider and Michael Joseph Egan. His grandfather Michael Egan was an Irish immigrant who settled in Savannah. After graduating from Portsmouth Priory School in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, Egan entered the U.S. Army in 1945 and was a second lieutenant in the Eighty-Sixth Infantry Division, stationed in the Philippines before his discharge in 1947. He received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1950, then was recalled to active duty in the army during the Korean War (1950-53), serving with the Second Infantry Division in Korea before his discharge in 1952. He obtained a law degree from Harvard University Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1955.
In 1951 Egan married Donna Cole, and the couple had six children, Moira, Michael III, Donna, Donald, William, and John.
Federal court decisions that struck down Georgia’s county unit election system and required legislative districts to be reapportioned on a “one man, one vote” basis opened the way in the 1960s for more Republicans from urban areas to be elected to a General Assembly that had been controlled by rural Democrats for decades. Egan and Atlanta Republicans Kil Townsend, Haskew Brantley, John Savage, and Rodney Cook were among those subsequently elected to the state House of Representatives.
Egan was first elected to the house in 1966 and became house minority leader in 1971. Although Republicans were greatly outnumbered, Egan was an effective opposition leader and critic of the majority party who was still able to get along on a personal level with Democrats like house Speaker Tom Murphy. In 1967 he was one of the few house members of either party to vote to allow Julian Bond to be seated in that body, despite Bond’s controversial opposition to the Vietnam War (1964-73). Egan consistently called for the adoption of legislation to open up the closed-door practices of the majority leadership.
When Jimmy Carter, the former Democratic governor of Georgia, was elected U.S. president in 1976, one of his earliest actions was to name Egan an associate attorney general under Griffin Bell in the Justice Department, where Egan served from 1977 to 1979. The move to Washington, D.C., required him to resign from the Georgia house.
After Carter’s presidential term ended, Egan returned to Atlanta and resumed the practice of law, focusing on federal taxation and estates and trusts. He was the chief reporter of an American Law Institute–American Bar Association handbook on the federal estate and gift tax and taught a course on the subject at Emory University’s School of Law.
Egan reentered legislative politics in 1989, when Republican state senator Paul Coverdell was named director of the Peace Corps by U.S. president George H. W. Bush. Egan won the special election to replace Coverdell in the state senate and served there through the 2000 session.
Throughout his legislative career Egan was respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, and was called “the conscience of the senate” by his Republican colleagues.
One of the last measures he pushed in his final legislative session was a bill to ensure that girls would have the same opportunities as boys to play sports in public schools. It was adopted with strong support from both parties. He also introduced a bill during his last session, which did not pass, to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. ”It’s been stuck in my craw a long time,” Egan said. A year after his retirement, the General Assembly adopted a bill creating a new state flag that drastically reduced the size of the Confederate battle emblem.
After stepping down from the legislature, Egan continued to serve as counsel to the Atlanta law firm of Sutherland Asbill and Brennan. He was one of the first people appointed to the newly created Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District by Governor Roy Barnes in 2001 and also served on the board of the Trust for Public Land.
Egan died on January 7, 2016, at the age of eighty-nine.