Roberta Walburn’s recently published biography of former U.S. District Judge Miles Lord brings back for me some cherished memories that capture the color, character, conscience, courage and candor of the most interesting public man I ever met.
Lord, who died in 2016 at age 97, was a reporter’s dream. I learned this when I was a 23-year-old rookie in the newsroom of The Minneapolis Star.
I overheard a conversation between the then-U.S. District Attorney and a veteran courts reporter, Larry Fitzmaurice: “Dammit, Miles, I got a deadline here. And I need to know what you’re going to do now — not later.”
I can imagine Lord telling Fitzmaurice what he could do with his deadlines as Fitzmaurice hung up the phone. But Fitz had the story in the paper’s home edition. Miles couldn’t help himself: He loved reporters (at least most of ’em).
The right writer
Walburn, a former Star Tribune reporter, is the perfect biographer. She’s a lawyer. She clerked for the judge. She admires tough and testy. She writes with an active voice in the present tense. Her prose, reflecting her newspaper background, is crisp, clear and colorful.
Her narratives, especially those involving Lord’s decisions in the Reserve Mining taconite tailings case and the case of A.H. Robins and its dodgy Dalkon Shield contraceptive, are revealing and riveting.
She builds the stories’ suspense one chapter at a time, then another and another.
In one instance, she describes the judge’s efforts to get the drug company to produce a relevant paper trail: “He (Lord) is excited that his order will result in the production of documents, as he later says, ‘from here to hell.’… Things are starting to move. By first thing the next morning, however, when the doors open to the clerk’s office for the Eighth Circuit, A.H. Robins is ready to file its papers to try to stop Judge Lord in his tracks.”
I’m not troubled by Walburn’s unabashed admiration and affection for the judge. I know he had critics — and Walburn cites and writes about them extensively — who feel he overstepped judicial boundaries, especially with his rhetoric.
Man of the people
But I believe the judge was acting in the best interest of the people — common, not corporate, people. The Dalkon Shield was injuring women and the taconite tailings were polluting Lake Superior.
Most of the time, Miles Lord was right.
One of those times involved a plea bargain with a defense contractor accused of defrauding the federal government. When I was at WCCO, I was assigned to cover the plea. I stopped by the judge’s office before the afternoon session and Lord gave me a candid and careful summary of the case.
Suddenly, I looked at my watch and realized he was due in court 15 minutes ago. Lord smiled.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “They’ll wait. They’ve got six lawyers who probably just racked up a couple thousand bucks worth of fees cooling their heels.”
Back in the courtroom, Lord told them he’d accept the plea, but he wanted the real names, not the corporate covers, of those involved.
Not immune to aging
I remember the last time I saw the judge. He was having lunch at The Lexington on St. Paul’s Grand Avenue, and former Star Tribune reporter Bob Whereatt and I were at a nearby table. Before we finished lunch, we walked over and said hello to the judge who appeared tired and, well, frail.
Before he left, Lord came over to our table and asked us to write down our names because he wanted to make sure he could recall our encounter.
I felt like crying. Somehow I thought the man who seemed immune to the powers that be could escape the rigors of age. Sadly, that doesn’t happen in real life.
But Walburn’s biography keeps the legacy alive.
About the book
Miles Lord: The Maverick Judge Who Brought Corporate America to Justice ($29.95, University of Minnesota Press) tells the story of Lord’s humble beginnings on Minnesota’s Iron Range and his rise to become one of the most colorful and powerful judges in the country, described as “an unabashed Prairie populist” and “a live-wire slayer of corporate behemoths.”
Learn more at upress.umn.edu, where you can find book-group discussion questions, videos, reviews and more.
Dave Nimmer has had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.