A Look Back Judge Laurie Smith Camp Takes Senior Status Starting Friday 11/29/18 11/29/18 12:34:42 PM
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Judge Laurie Smith Camp’s office is decorated with many historic etchings of her aunt’s that she found when cleaning out her parents’ house. The picture above her is entitled: “The Justice of the King.” If you ever get the chance, ask her to tell you its story. (Photo by Lorraine Boyd)
A Look Back
Judge Laurie Smith Camp Takes Senior Status Starting Friday
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
After 41 years as a lawyer, 17 of those years as a federal judge and seven of those years as chief judge, Laurie Smith Camp will begin a new chapter in her career tomorrow.
On Friday, the Nebraska judge for the U.S. District Court will take senior status. She will continue on the bench, most likely working at the same pace she has always maintained. As testament to that, a glance at her imminent schedule shows only one clear calendar day – Friday.
She stepped down as chief judge Nov. 1, a seven-year administrative responsibility that she passed to Judge John Gerrard. Her taking senior status allows the court to nominate a new judge to fill her active role.
“It opens up a position for the court for another judge, so I believe it’s in the best interest of the court for me to take senior status,” she said. “I plan to keep a balance of civil and criminal cases.”
The Court will observe those changes tomorrow, starting at 1 p.m. with a two-hour continuing legal education event followed by a two-hour reception for Smith Camp, all at the Roman L. Hruska United States Courthouse.
Members of the Omaha and Nebraska Bars are no doubt familiar with the stately, soft-spoken judge who has not only ruled on their cases, but also addressed them on special occasions with her impeccable wit and wisdom. She gave a truly memorable, and personal, Law Day luncheon speech in 2008 about the Rule of Law. She gave a humorous speech to newly-minted lawyers at an OBA membership meeting. She introduced a permanent
exhibit at the federal courthouse commemorating the historic 1932 trial of Omaha’s infamous political
boss Tom Dennison.
She is an enthusiastic supporter of Shakespeare on the Green as well as many other forms of the arts. And her interests are eclectic enough to find her at a championship boxing bout featuring Omaha’s native son, Terrance “Bud” Crawford.
Her office on the third floor of the federal courthouse echoes her personality. It is filled with graceful furniture and appointments, with framed historic etchings filling the walls. Along with little nuggets of humor that pop up here and there.
Smith Camp, a frequent speaker,presenter and raconteur, set aside her self-described introverted nature
to take a look back at the law as she has experienced it. She spoke about how the law has changed.
A Look Back
Smith Camp talked at length about her career.
“Some people who practiced law years ago say the field of law is not as collegial or as civil as it once was. I think it is more collegial and more civil, because of the fact that women were not as welcome as they are now.
“The law has gotten more diverse. Men don’t think it’s unusual anymore for a woman to be involved in any profession. So the attitudes of the members of the Bar have evolved … which is great.
“When I graduated from law school (at the University of Nebraska), I was in the second post-Title 9 class to graduate. So, mine was just really the second class to have a significant number of women.
Law firms generally were not interested in hiring women. There were more opportunities in government
or perhaps corporate work. So, it’s changed in that respect.
“Another change in the field of law is that there is a little more specialization now. Many lawyers were in general practice years ago. Now there is more emphasis on choosing a specialty.
“When I began practicing law, many law firms used to refuse domestic relations cases. Now firms specialize in it.
“And we are seeing fewer cases going to trial now. There is more mediation, arbitration and alternative
dispute resolution. More cases are resolved on summary judgment. It’s rare now in a civil case not to see depositive pre-trial motions; when I started practicing it was rare to see them. More time is devoted to discovery, to electronic discovery, the cost of litigation has increased, and consequently fewer cases go to trial.
“Seventeen years ago, we were in trial all the time, back to back trials. Now we’re not in trial nearly as much. That’s okay. Even in criminal cases, there are more pleas.
“It’s a national trend. It means in part that the law is more predictable than it may have been in the past. If there are things about the case that are more unpredictable, then people are more apt to roll the dice and go to trial. But if you have a pretty certain idea of what the result is going to be, it’s easier to settle or plead.”
Who Were Her
Influences or Mentors?
“My father was a lawyer. I watched him dealing with clients. He certainly had very high ethical standards, so I was influenced by him,” she said.
“I would also refer to Bob Spire as a mentor. I got to know him when I was a lawyer for the prison system and he was the Nebraska Attorney General.”
She said he appointed her Special Chief Deputy Attorney General for Criminal Matters in 1991 and she worked with him to draft the prison litigation reform act.
“Our friendship was one of the most important in my life,” she said. “He was a great influence. I still miss him.”
When asked if there has been an adverse impact on the justice system with all the politics lately, Smith Camp replied: “Everyone wants to believe judges are going to decide cases in a non-partisan manner. When the nomination process for judges is politically-charged, it lowers the public’s confidence that judges and justices will reach their decisions in a non-partisan manner.”
Shortly after she became a judge, she registered as non-partisan and doesn’t get involved in any political activities. “And I would hope my decisions would reflect a non-partisan approach. It’s not that often that we get a case that might demonstrate that partisan bias.
“But it is important for the public to have confidence in the judiciary – a lack of that certainly is a negative
effect of a politically-charged nomination process. It undermines the confidence when you have that kind of a process.”
“My favorite thing about being a judge is working with the juries,” Smith Camp said. “When I first meet with them, I give them a talk about the history of jury service and the importance of it.
“After the trial I meet with them again, and almost inevitably I have found that they are very proud to have served. They recognize the importance of what they have done. They often mention to me that the process was inspirational. They have great respect for the system. That makes me feel good about our jury system and how it involves the public in the process.”
She also enjoys working with lawyers. “And I’ve had some wonderful interns and law clerks. I also enjoy research and writing.” While law clerks often do a lot of research and drafting for the judges, she said, “I research and write some of my opinions from scratch.”
Another of her favorite things about her job is that “I’ve had an opportunity to interact with students and members of the community, and it’s been great.”
And of course, working with her colleagues. “My colleagues are a great group of collegial judges. We all have different strengths. I am so grateful to work with them.”
She praised the appointments to the federal bench who have joined her in the past 17 years: “The likes of Judges Gerard and Rossiter – fabulous colleagues; two new Magistrates Bazis and Nelson, who are just terrific additions; and we’ve retained Judge Zwart, who has a great reputation in Lincoln. We have a very strong group of colleagues.
“We have also developed and maintained a good rapport with our legislative representatives, as well as the state judiciary.”
She said the hardest part of being a judge – at least a chief judge – is the personnel issues that come with the administrative job.
“They can be a challenge,” she said. “And many judges would say that sentencing is one of the hardest things they do. But I have no complaints about my job! The docket was extremely heavy when I started, but now the caseload is about average.”
She pointed out some of the cases that have stood out in the past 17 years. Her answers made it clear that what she relishes is cases that are both interesting and challenging. Interesting legal issues. Constitutional questions. Interesting expert testimony. She singled out the Initiative 300 litigation regarding the family farm in 2005. Her opinion that it did not meet Constitutional muster was upheld on appeal.
“Most judges like cases that are well-lawyered on both sides and pose interesting legal issues and Constitutional issues.”
Now for Some Advice
“For newcomers to the bench: You’ll make mistakes. Don’t let pride prevent you from acknowledging
mistakes and fixing them. Encourage lawyers to point out your mistakes so you can fix them promptly. Take your work seriously, but not yourself. It’s okay to use self-effacing humor, but not okay to use humor at someone else’s expense.
“Advice for newcomers to the law: The justice system is imperfect. Don’t be discouraged. The system improves bit by bit when people of good will dedicate their time and talent to make it work. You are needed.”
“After (Friday), I look forward to planning the 8th Circuit Judicial Conference and Celebration of the Centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment (women’s suffrage). Mark your calendars for August 5, 6 and 7, 2020! RBG will participate, and Omaha will make history!”
A Favorite Memory
A few years ago, one of my law clerks wrote a play about the trial of Standing Bear. It was produced throughout the country, including the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor spoke at that event, and she and I were honored with a Ponca tribal dance.
Before the honor dance (which is a wonderful, meaningful tribute), we were briefed by tribal elders.
One elder told us that as we danced in a circle, followed by chanting children placing shawls on our shoulders, it was possible that members of the tribe on the periphery would hand us dollar bills.
Justice Sotomayor said with great dignity, “I’m sorry, but as a Supreme Court Justice, I cannot accept
dollar bills when I dance.”
And I realized, that was the difference between a Supreme Court Justice and a district court judge!
– Judge Laurie Smith Camp