In an absorbing and page-turning biography, Roberta Walburn describes the remarkable life and career of Miles Lord (1919-2016), one of Minnesota’s most influential — and controversial — jurists. Like so many of the Midwestern social-gospel progressives of his generation, including Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale (all of whom feature largely in the book), Lord came from humble beginnings — in his case, the Iron Range. But through grit, hard work and political savvy, Lord managed to achieve a long-held goal: to become a U.S. district judge. In that position — and in all others he held throughout his career — Lord championed the “little guy” against the rich and powerful, whether the cases involved environmental health, consumer health, education reform or women’s rights. He was what is called today “an activist judge.” And for that, as Walburn notes, “he was loved and he was hated, a hero and a villain.”
In 1974, for example, in what is now considered a landmark environmental trial, Lord shut down the Reserve Mining Company for polluting Lake Superior with taconite tailings. That order got him yanked off the case by the 8th Circuit Court, a personal and professional humiliation. Yet, in the eyes of many then — and now — Lord is viewed as having saved Lake Superior.
Much of “Miles Lord: The Maverick Judge Who Brought Corporate America to Justice” focuses on another of the judge’s groundbreaking cases, one that consumed his courtroom for major portions of 1983 and 1984. It involved the Dalkon Shield, a defective intrauterine device (IUD) that killed more than a dozen women and caused at least 200,000 other women pelvic infections, miscarriages and hysterectomies. Once again, after becoming frustrated with the legal stonewalling of corporate lawyers — this time, the ones representing Dalkon Shield’s marketer, the A.H. Robins Company — Lord took unorthodox action. And, once again, he was charged with judicial bias. But for the women whose bodies had been maimed by the Dalkon Shield, Lord was their hero. [Full disclosure: I co-authored a book about the Dalkon Shield in 1985.]
Roberta Walburn was Lord’s law clerk during that particular tumultuous time, so she is able to provide an engrossingly detailed account of the drama that was going on behind the scenes. But she tells many other fascinating stories in the book about Lord: how he and his wife, Maxine, were jitterbug champions; how during his successful but short-lived boxing career, Lord received tips from heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey; how he worked with Bobby Kennedy to go after the corrupt Teamsters official Jimmy Hoffa; and how he served as emissary between Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy during the fractious 1968 U.S. presidential campaign.
Walburn intended to return to journalism after clerking for Lord. (She had worked previously as a reporter for the Star Tribune and the Buffalo Evening News.) But, inspired by what she had seen in Lord’s courtroom, she instead decided to practice law. She has had a distinguished career as a Minnesota-based attorney, playing a significant role in such cases as the State of Minnesota’s lawsuit against the tobacco industry and the litigation surrounding the Bhopal gas leak disaster.
MinnPost recently talked with Walburn about Miles Lord and the writing of his biography. An edited version of that conversation follows. (Lord is referred to as “Miles” rather than “Judge Lord” throughout the conversation because, as Walburn points out, “pretty much everyone called him Miles throughout his years on the bench.”)
MinnPost: As you were researching the book, did you find anything about Miles that surprised you?
Roberta Walburn: From the time that I clerked with Miles and from even before that, I was reading up on him — how he grew up poor on the Range, his friendship with Hubert Humphrey, the landmark decisions. But I was still constantly surprised by the research — just the fullness of the story, the depth of his relationship with Hubert Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy, and the details of the cases and what made those cases. I was constantly uncovering new facts that made his story all the more wondrous.
MP: You make it clear in the book how central the Iron Range was to his life. He never really left it, did he?
RW: Miles never left the Range, and the Range never left Miles. To understand him you really need to go back to his roots on the Range, and once you go through that history of his boyhood and coming of age, the stage is really set for all that followed.
MP: It was a real hardscrabble upbringing.
RW: He grew up in one of the poorest families in his town, the eighth of nine children who survived, a family so poor that it did not have shoes and even coats for all the kids to go to school in every day. It was a very inauspicious beginning. His biggest claims to fame were his fighting in schoolyards and pool halls and his jitterbugging. But the other seed that was planted in his early days was a sermon that he heard in church, and the story of Cain and Abel never left him. He lived by the motto of being his brother’s and his sister’s keeper his entire life — and certainly on the bench. Also, before he left the Range he met the love of his life, Maxine, who came from the other side of the tracks, literally and figuratively, and was determined that Miles was going to make something of himself.
MP: Which he did against all odds.
RW: Yes. It was certainly not pre-ordained that he would rise to the levels that he did.
MP: But in that respect, his story doesn’t differ much from that of Hubert Humphrey and many of the other Minnesotans of that generation who were involved in the state’s progressive politics.
RW: I think it’s a remarkable story. Many of these young men came from poor families in small towns, and they all came together in the 1940s under the leadership of Hubert Humphrey and rose to such important and high and impactful levels — not only in our state, but in our country as well.
MP: They formed such an important faction of the postwar liberal movement in country.
RW: Definitely. They were the leading liberals in Congress, and the state has a reputation as being the beginning bedrock of all these incredible leaders.
MP: Miles was involved in politics, but he always wanted to be on the federal bench. He didn’t really care for being a politician.
RW: His mother put it in his head that he needed to be a lawyer, and when Miles made it through law school — the University of Minnesota — against all odds, he started appearing in federal court as a public defender, making five dollars for each case. He was really struck by the men on the bench, and they were all men at that time, in the early 1950s. That’s when he got it in his mind that that would be his goal. As you say, he started out in politics. He was elected three times as Minnesota attorney general, but he really, throughout that time, still longed to be on the federal bench. He didn’t like the fundraising that politics required. His wife, Maxine, didn’t like politicians. She thought politics bred infidelity, and Miles also recognized, rightly, that he would have much more independence as a federal judge, appointed for life.
MP: He couldn’t be removed, and that protected him against his enemies — well, maybe not his enemies, but people who thought he was too much of a maverick.
RW: Yes, and some of them were his enemies. I think you’re absolutely right that in his mind it really freed him up to use the powers of the federal bench as far as those powers could be taken.
MP: People who knew Miles either loved him or hated him. There didn’t seem to be any middle ground when it came to people’s feelings about him.
RW: Yes. There was no middle ground with Miles, and I think one of the best indicators of that was the fact that he was named one of the worst federal judges in the country, and then one of the best federal judges in the country, all within the timeframe of a single year.
MP: His two biggest cases involved Reserve Mining and the Dalkon Shield. Both involved health issues. Let’s start with Reserve Mining. Was that a success from his viewpoint?
RW: Let me start from the opposite perspective. I think from most people’s perspective it was a success in that by the end of the case Reserve Mining was no longer able to dump 67,000 tons of waste into a beautiful lake like Superior every single day, into waters that the citizens of Duluth and other North Shore communities were drinking unfiltered. But in Miles’s mind nothing was ever a success because he always wanted more. In the end, he did accomplish the halting of the discharges into Lake Superior, and along the way became the first judge to ever order the shutdown of a major industrial plant over environmental concerns.
MP: But he paid a heavy personal price for that.
RW: He did pay the price, and when you asked me earlier about things that surprised me in my research, one of the things that did surprise me was how big a price he paid personally. On the surface, it seemed like he took on all of these causes, and despite what might happen to him, he was oblivious to the slings and arrows shot at him. But in fact he did pay a price, and in Reserve Mining he was removed from the case by the 8th Circuit for bias. He never got over that slight.
MP: In the Dalkon Shield case, the 8th Circuit eventually expunged the famous speech he made from the bench to the corporate lawyers and executives from the A.H. Robins Company. [The judge had summoned them to his courtroom.] I was in the courtroom when he made that speech. At the time, I wasn’t aware of how unusual such a speech was, but I talked in the hallway afterward with some of the women who had been harmed by the Dalkon Shield, and I know how much his words meant to them.
RW: Miles had learned early on from Hubert Humphrey that one of the most important functions of an official was to educate the public and to speak to the public, and Miles took that to heart. He viewed his job on the bench was to talk to the public and help to inform and educate the public about the bigger issues of the day, which he did with the speech [in the Dalkon Shield case]. He had a way of connecting with ordinary people — not so much with appellate judges, not so much with lawyers on the other side — but with ordinary people, and that gave him extra power that most judges never see.
MP: You discussed that speech beforehand with him. He knew there would be trouble for himself if he read it aloud, but he did it anyway.
RW: Right. He didn’t know exactly the consequences, but he knew it would gain attention. That was the point of it — to gain the public’s attention and to try to convince the executives from A.H. Robins to recall the Dalkon Shield and to compensate the women. But he didn’t decide until the last moment that he was going to actually deliver the speech out loud in open court.
MP: What kind of influence did he have on your decision to become a lawyer — and on your career itself?
RW: The judge had a profound influence on me. I was not intending to practice law, though I had a law degree. I was intending to go back to journalism, but it was infectious working for him and seeing how he approached the law. His “I am one” philosophy, about trying to do your own part, no matter how small, in making the world a little better place, also [made a great impression.]
MP: Do you think he would’ve been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court if Hubert Humphrey had won the presidency?
RW: That’s a question that I find hard to answer. I think not, because he was so controversial for so many years. Certainly in today’s climate, no matter how close the friendship with the president, someone like Miles Lord would never make it to the Supreme Court. He’s just way too outspoken and way too controversial. Back in those days – it’s hard to say definitely not, but I think it would’ve been a long haul for him. And I’m not sure he would’ve been so happy on the Supreme Court or even had as much influence as he did on the District Court bench, where he could act on his own and do what he felt in his own conscience was the right thing to do.
MP: What do you want people to take away from this book?
RW: I’d like for his legacy to be remembered because he had such a powerful and impactful role in our state and our nation, in politics and in the legal system. And he really did make the world better with his decisions, just spanning a whole range of legal issues. And I think we forget too easily what came before us. I think it’s very important to remember his actions and to take them to heart.
MP: He certainly was an extraordinary man. Not one you forgot once you met him.
RW: Miles was an adventure and wonderful and fun and meaningful, and he rolled that all up into one larger-than-life personality.
FMI: “Miles Lord: The Maverick Judge Who Brought Corporate America to Justice” is published by the University of Minnesota Press. You can meet Walburn in person at two upcoming book-signing events: Tuesday, Oct. 24, at 7 p.m., at the Common Good Books in St. Paul and Saturday, Nov. 4, at 3 p.m., at Zenith Bookstore in Duluth.