A History of Three Judges Portraits Discovered, Unveiled at Courthouse 12/11/18 12/12/18 9:03:32 AM
Judge Laurie Smith Camp helps Nick Batter unveil the portrait of Judge Joseph William Woodrough, the longest serving federal judge in history. (Photo by Lorraine Boyd)
A History of Three Judges
Portraits Discovered, Unveiled at Courthouse
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
The Roman L. Hruska United States Courthouse was the setting for one of the more unusual continuing legal education programs in recent memory.
The two-hour event Nov. 30 presented “A History of the Federal District Court” for the first hour, with a surprise “field trip” in the middle. The second hour offered “Lessons Learned from Practicing before the Honorable Laurie Smith Camp.” She took senior status that day and the Honorable John Gerrard took over as Chief Judge.
The first hour explored the development of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska from its inception in 1867 through 1933, the year marking the end of Prohibition.
Co-authors of the book Echo of Its Time, Professor Emeritus of History John R. Wunder, Ph.D., University of Nebraska – Lincoln; and Dr. Mark Scherer, Ph.D., J.D., University of Nebraska at Omaha history professor; and attorney/historian Nick Batter discussed the social and political context of the most notable cases of the era. Not coincidentally, their remarks introduced three titans of the bench – Judge Joseph William Woodrough, Justice Samuel Freeman Miller, and Judge Elmer S. Dundy.
Judge Smith Camp had come across three large professional portraits of those three men languishing in storage at the Nebraska State Historical Society. She thought they might be appropriate to hang in the federal courthouse, if they could be restored.
Enter Kenneth Bé, paintings conservator at the Ford Conservation Center. He undertook the task and restored the portraits to their original glory, even patching a hole in the face of one of the judges. Each of these judges was examined by the presenters then, at the end of their remarks, the entire courthouse spilled out and descended to the third floor where the paintings were hanging. Each was unveiled with a flourish, as befitting these influential jurists.
Elmer S. Dundy
Judge Dundy, who served on the bench from 1868 to his death in 1896, was nominated by President Andrew Johnson (who assumed the office on the death of President Abraham Lincoln). He was the first judge of the newly created U.S. District Court of the District of Nebraska. In 1879 he presided over the landmark case of Ponca Chief Standing Bear’s habeas corpus petition. It was Dundy who declared that a Native American was a person under the law. The next year, he and Judge George McCrary heard John Elk, another Native American, sue to be acknowledged as a citizen. He dismissed the action. The Supreme Court upheld the dismissal in Elk v. Wilkins (1884), which remained in effect until Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. Dundy County, Nebraska, was named for the judge.
Samuel Freeman Miller
Nominated by President Lincoln in 1862, Samuel Freeman Miller became the first Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from west of the Mississippi. His reputation was so high that Miller was confirmed half an hour after the Senate received notice of his nomination. In a landmark case after the Civil War ended, his narrow reading of the 14th Amendment – he wrote the opinion in the Slaughterhouse Cases – limited the effectiveness of the amendment. He served 28 years, until his death in 1890. He wrote 616 opinions, more than any other justice in history.
He earned a medical degree in 1838, practiced for a decade, then studied the law on his own and was admitted to the bar in 1847.
His portrait was donated to the Court by prominent Omaha lawyer and judge, J.M. Woolworth. Woolworth served as president of the American Bar Association and helped found the Omaha Library and the Nebraska State Historical Society (along with Judge Dundy). He was also elected the first City Attorney of Omaha. The artist was Thomas Le Clear of New York’s National Academy.
Joseph W. Woodrough
Judge Joseph W. Woodrough was nominated to the district court bench by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. He served as a federal judge for 61 years.
Prior to his appointments, he had practiced law in Omaha from 1898 to 1916; and before that he served as a judge in Texas (1894-1896), then as county attorney in 1897.
His history is fascinating by any measure. He was first appointed to the bench when he was barely 21, without a law degree, or any degree. (He dropped out of high school, college and law school.) He had been admitted to the profession on the basis of having read a few legal treatises (he “read law” at Heidelberg University in 1893) and because some prominent citizens vouched for his character.
He was named a federal judge at 42 and served until his death at age 104. He remains the longest serving federal judge in American history.
When he arrived in Omaha as a 24-year-old attorney, he began his career in earnest. He arrived just as mob boss Tom Dennison took over the underworld in Omaha.
A local connection with Judge Smith Camp emerged at this time. A new attorney, her father Edson Smith, started working to destroy the Dennison Prohibition machine.
“In 1932, Judge Woodrough presided over the two-month trial of Omaha’s ‘political boss’ Tom Dennison, along with 58 co-defendants charged with 168 acts of conspiracy to violate the Prohibition Act. National news media reported daily trial developments – testimony of bootlegging, violence, protection payments, jury-rigging, highjacking, and police officers working under the control and direction of the defendants. … The trial is generally credited with bringing an end to a political machine and crime syndicate that dominated Omaha during the first third of the twentieth century,” Batter wrote. Interestingly enough, the trial ended with a hung jury, but the public voted every Dennison supporter out of office, thus putting him out of business.
Woodrough became known as “The Wayfaring Judge” for his penchant for walking, sometimes hundreds of miles, to remote trial venues. The co-founder of Kutak Rock law firm, Harold Rock – who passed away last month – was Woodrough’s last known law clerk. Woodrough dragged Rock around with him, walking to court in Nebraska City, and one time walking to St Louis. His enthusiasm for the place was boundless. He told the exhausted Rock, “I like this place. Everyone here minds his own business.”
Despite that, he was described as friendly and good-humored. Batter wrote “Chief Judge Robert Van Pelt would remember him as ‘the most human judge the District Court of Nebraska has ever had.’”
Many of his cases were discussed – there were so many over those 61 years – but many had to be saved for reading published accounts, including Batter’s work.
Woodrough’s portrait was painted by J. Laurie Wallace, an Omaha artist and student of Thomas Eakins.
The second half of the CLE was devoted to speakers sharing lessons they learned from practicing before, and working for, Judge Smith Camp. In a decidedly flattering “roast,” attorneys Karen Keeler, Patricia Kiscoan, Susan Lehr, David M. Newman and Jeffrey L. Thomas related how they believe the judge has made a positive impact on the legal profession.
Judge Smith Camp hosted a reception in the court’s atrium after the CLE. Napkins stated: “This is Not a Retirement Party.”
She took senior status, but will continue her work on the bench. Still, it felt like a retirement, or at least the start of a new chapter.
To commemorate that, new Chief Judge Gerrard, on behalf of the court, presented her with a signed first-edition of Willa Cather’s final novel, Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
Editor’s note: The book Echo of Its Time by Dr. Wunder and Dr. Scherer will be available for purchase in February 2019.