By Lynette Lamb
Where oh where are the judges like Miles Lord today? Judges willing—no, strike that: happy—to take on giant corporations bent on poisoning American waters and sterilizing American women? Judges raised in working-class families who pay close attention to the part of their judicial oath of office that asserts: “I will administer justice . . . and do equal right to the poor and to the rich.” Public officials for whom becoming a judge was “almost like going to heaven,” and who described their federal judgeship as “the best job in the world.” Author Roberta Walburn (J.D. ’83), herself once a devoted clerk of Judge Lord, seems to ask that question repeatedly in her exhaustive and admiring biography of her former boss, Miles Lord: The Maverick Judge Who Brought Corporate America to Justice (University of Minnesota Press).
Lord (J.D. ’48), best known for overseeing the Dalkon Shield and Reserve Mining cases, died in 2016, but remains beloved in Minnesota and across the country for standing up for women and the environment against daunting commercial interests—what he once memorably called “crime in the skyscraper.”
Lord occasionally got into trouble for eschewing the standard judicial temperament and acting instead as an advocate, most notably in the Reserve Mining case, when he ordered the company to immediately stop pouring taconite tailings into Lake Superior and was ultimately removed as presiding judge. Later, he was brought up on charges of judicial misconduct in the Dalkon Shield case after delivering a remarkable 10-minute tongue lashing to A.H. Robins executives, at one point pleading with them, “Please, in the name of humanity, lift your eyes above the bottom line.”
Walburn clerked for Lord during the Dalkon Shield case, so it’s not surprising that this is the case that comes most vividly to life in her nearly 400-page book. She also does justice to the lengthy Reserve Mining case, though she barely mentions two equally important Lord cases: a landmark gender discrimination suit against the University of Minnesota, his alma matter, and a groundbreaking—and at the time, highly controversial—case that led to the banning of motorized vehicles from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
A former reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Walburn does a fine job describing Lord’s hardscrabble childhood on the Iron Range as well as his lifelong friendships with Hubert Humphrey (“Hubie”) and Eugene McCarthy. The three Minnesotans relied on each other’s friendships throughout their lives; Lord even served as an informational conduit between the other two men when they ran against each other as Democratic candidates for president in 1968.
Lord was particularly devoted to Humphrey, of whom he said, “He was more brilliant, he was more fun, he had more compassion, he was more practical, he had more foresight, he had more understanding, he had more everything than anybody I ever knew. And nobody even comes close.”
Less well developed are the members of Lord’s family: two sons, two daughters, and a wife of many years. Although they were clearly important to him, their role in Lord’s life is given short shrift, perhaps out of a surplus of sensitivity for surviving family members or at the judge’s own behest.
It’s in areas like this, as well as in the lack of space given to the crusading judge’s many critics, that the disadvantages of an adoring author are made manifest. Walburn’s admiration for Lord is genuine and heartfelt, but it doesn’t always advance the cause of a fully fleshed-out biography.
Nonetheless, the book is well worth reading for its vivid portrayal of a singular crusading judge—a nearly extinct form of public servant.
And… the roundup
If you like your reminiscences disjointed, pick up a copy of Feverland: A Memoir in Shards (Milkweed) by Alex Lemon (M.A. ’04), author of the award-winning 2010 memoir Happy. This second round ping-pongs among the birth of the author’s children, the ongoing medical consequences of a brainstem vascular malformation that nearly killed him a dozen years ago, his school years in Minnesota, a trip to Nepal, his former substance abuse, and a brief, heartbreaking mention of childhood sexual abuse.
Equally dark but more fantastical is Tales of Wonder: Retelling Fairy Tales through Picture Postcards (University of Minnesota Press) by U professor emeritus of German Jack Zipes. Compiled from his extensive collection of century-old fairy-tale postcards, this coffee table book includes both illustrated and photographic depictions—vividly detailed and frequently creepy—of tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Sleeping Beauty.
Prefer your fables Scandinavian-style? Then look for Seven Ways to Trick a Troll (University of Minnesota Press), written by Duluth’s Lise Lunge-Larsen with charmingly whimsical illustrations by Lutsen, Minnesota, artist Kari Vick.
Another Northern Minnesota writer, Ranier’s Mary Casanova (B.A. ’81), has just published her second young adult historical novel, Ice-Out (University of Minnesota Press), after enjoying success with her first equally frosty one, Frozen. Set during Prohibition, this is a compelling tale of booze smuggling, financial struggle, and romance along Minnesota’s Canadian borderland during deepest winter.
The prolific and versatile Alison McGhee (M.A. ‘93), also a regular writer of young adult and children’s books, has recently published a fine adult novel called Never Coming Back (Houghton Mifflin). It tells the story of thirtysomething writer Clara, who returns home to the Adirondacks to care for—and try to extract some answers from—her enigmatic mother, who is retreating into the fog of Alzheimer’s disease.
Rather read a cookbook? The hottest one in the Twin Cities this year is The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen (University of Minnesota Press) by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley. Sherman, born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, is a well-known Twin Cities cook, now claiming and promoting the “real food” of Native Americans: lake trout, wild turnip, blueberries, duck, etc. This is his first recipe book incorporating that culinary philosophy, which he will further develop in a Minneapolis riverfront restaurant, scheduled to open in 2019.
To delve deeper into Native American spiritual beliefs and practices, read the essay collection Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year (University of Minnesota Press) by Linda LeGarde Grover, a member of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe and a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota–Duluth.
Lynette Lamb (M.A. '84) is a longtime Twin Cities editor and writer and a regular book reviewer for the Star Tribune.
Email letters and comments about this story to UMNAlumnimag@umn.edu.