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John Borger: More than a brilliant lawyer, he was a great man

John Borger
Courtesy of the family
John Borger
By now, the Twin Cities media and legal communities have heard of the passing of John Borger, as have readers of the local newspapers and, yes, even The New York Times, where an obituary served as testament to the national importance of the life he lived.

John, one of the country’s pre-eminent First Amendment lawyers, died Dec. 16 at the age of 68. He spent his 40-year career practicing law at Faegre Baker Daniels (Faegre & Benson, when he joined it). During that time, he led the development of the law relied upon by those who speak truth to power, defending journalists in libel litigation, protecting them from subpoenas, and ensuring they could access government information and judicial records.

But what eludes capture in the long list of cases he handled are the sentiments conveyed to me since he died by people from across the country — some who saw him just once or twice a year at legal conferences. Even these casual acquaintances intuitively know: John was more than a great lawyer; he was a great man.

Many a brilliant lawyer is just that: Brilliant at the law, but singularly focused on that pursuit, forsaking the diversity of experiences and the pausing to be human that make life worth living. Not John.

In the decade-plus I worked under his tutelage, I had many opportunities to learn from the example he set, but two incidents in particular stand out.

The first was when I was a fairly young associate, trying to figure out how to balance the demands of motherhood with a career in “big law.” One day I came in late, having spent the morning reading to my son’s day care class. I will never forget what John said when I saw him.

While many partners of his gender and generation might have been noticeably annoyed or simply said nothing, John went out of his way to tell me how important it is to take time to do what I had done — how finding work-life balance is hard, but can be done and is so worth it. It meant the world to me, even more so because I knew he spoke from experience: John’s wife, Judy, had an important career of her own as a Twin Cities journalist and together they juggled the raising of three great kids, now three great adults.

Leita Walker
Leita Walker
The second incident was a year or two later, when I was discussing some firm policy with John. I must have rolled my eyes, conveying disbelief that the firm was doing anything more than paying lip service to the issue. John stopped me with a gentle reprimand. I wish I could remember his exact words. But he essentially said not to go looking for shadows lurking in dark corners. Assume the best of people, he was saying. Take them at their word, at least until they give you reason not to.

Like any good journalist, John was often skeptical. But I never saw him cynical. He questioned people’s judgment, but rarely their motives. He understood that there is enough adversity in the world — certainly in the practice of law — without going looking for it among your friends, colleagues, and allies. It’s a lesson I will never forget.

Not all of us will get to take a case to the U.S. Supreme Court, as John did, or be named, as John was, a Champion of the First Amendment, the highest honor from the American Bar Association Forum on Communications Law. (John was only the third to receive this prestigious award.)

But the things that made John one of the giants of my life — his generosity of spirit, his patience, his commitment to a worthy cause — are things all of us can model. What a wonderful life he led and what a wonderful, many-layered legacy he left.

Leita Walker is an attorney at Ballard Spahr in Minneapolis.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Deborah Gelbach on 12/23/2019 - 01:42 pm.

    What a lovely piece about this man– a tremendously valuable force for clarity of thought and exuberance for what is right because it is both defensible and morally justifiable.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 12/23/2019 - 06:35 pm.

    Although I did not know Mr. Borger, how refreshing it is to read this.

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