Spire Award Winner Kleine Keeps Wheels of Justice Turning 5/5/17 05/05/17 2:47:08 PM
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Douglas County Attorney Donald W. Kleine looks at his job as a “tremendous opportunity. I love this job and the ability to work in this capacity.”
Spire Award Winner Kleine Keeps Wheels of Justice Turning
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
Donald “Don” W. Kleine is a household name in Douglas County, thanks to his frequent appearances on the local news. It’s a mixed blessing that goes with the territory.
Kleine is the current Douglas County Attorney. Recent high-profile criminal cases in the news include those of serial killers Nikko Jenkins and Anthony Garcia, both of whom he successfully prosecuted. He also prosecuted murderers Roy Ellis and Christopher Edwards. and rapist David Burdette. Unlike the fictional Hamilton Burger, Kleine boasts a winning record on these cases.
He is being honored by the Omaha Bar Association at the Law Day Luncheon today, where he will be presented with the Robert M. Spire Public Service Award.
“This award really means a lot to me. I only met Robert Spire once when I was a young lawyer. But I knew his reputation; the respect that he garnered … this guy was really special. To have an award in his name is very special.
“I wouldn’t have the opportunity that I have without all the people putting me in this position. I had great parents who did so much for me, and I had Pinky (former Douglas County Attorney Donald L. Knowles), Jim Keenan (former Acting County Coroner) and Judge John Grant, who mentored me and gave me chances to grow and [guide] me in the right direction. There are so many people I owe so much to; so many people in this office who work so hard.”
Make no mistake about it. Kleine likes his job. “It’s very rewarding also because I love Omaha and I love Douglas County. It’s an opportunity to do things that help our community.”
He looked around his office and said, “This office is like a family to me. We’ve got 60 lawyers and lots of support staff … it’s a big law firm, and the important thing I’d like people to understand is that it really is all about public service. Our job is to make the community the best we can for the people that live here, from a public safety perspective and every other perspective.
“To me it’s a tremendous opportunity. I love this job and the ability to work in this capacity.” Of course, “It’s wearing at times,” he admitted.
He has to be a very efficient multi-tasker, balancing management, community tasks and trial work. He still takes on big cases. “There are a lot of young lawyers here and I think the leadership should mentor them and set an example. But that really adds on to the workload.
“Then there are the cases that never leave you. Cases about children. They are etched in your soul. They do bother you. It can be very emotional handling those kinds of cases.”
To counter that, Kleine looks to his activities outside of the office and the courtroom.
“People sometimes ask me why I do it: coaching kids’ basketball, teaching law classes at Creighton’s School of Law and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. I think it’s more for my benefit. It’s nice to be around a bunch of energetic, optimistic students, especially with some of the things we have to deal with here. It provides some balance in my life.”
The greatest balancer is his family.
“People ask me ‘How do you find time for family, coaching, three kids?’ I have a wonderful wife (Kim, a nurse) who’s very supportive, and four grandkids I enjoy tremendously. Family is the biggest thing in my life and helps me keep a balance. Sometimes after a long day, it’s seeing the grandkids, …” He pauses. “Two of my kids are parents themselves now and it’s fun to watch them too.”
He has two sons, both of whom followed in his footsteps; Donald “Don” J. Kleine is an assistant U.S. attorney and Philip “Phil” K. Kleine is a deputy county attorney in Sarpy County. His daughter, Kevin Maureen Kleine, is married and raising two children. She used to work in the County Attorney’s office as a victim/witness coordinator.
Besides coaching kids’ basketball (and volleyball) at his parish, St. Gerald Catholic Church, he has volunteered for more than 30 years with community youth groups. He coached his grandson’s baseball team to a championship season recently.
Then there’s the matter of the Barristers v. County Attorneys annual softball game. Kleine has been his office’s pitcher for many years. It has been noted that they lose when he can’t make it.
Public Service Award
This award celebrates a person for his or her contribution to the public’s understanding of the law. How does Kleine think he’s contributed to the public’s knowledge?
“Just in the manner we do our job here. Everything we do is subject to public scrutiny. … I get asked questions every day about the law. It’s important; it’s good that we’re transparent. Part of that is educating the public about how we do our job (everyone in the justice system). There are really a lot of people who put their time in.
“And I have to answer to the public every four years, and that’s a good thing. I make sure everybody in this office is cognizant of that.
“Every day, there are things that happen in the community. As the largest county in Nebraska, we have some of the big city problems. We work with law enforcement, victims, the public, the hospitals – from the standpoint of the coroner’s job, the board of mental health … every day we address those kinds of issues where people come to us for help.”
He noted, “There’s not a day that goes by that there isn’t something that happens that we have a direct impact on our community.
“We are so fortunate. There are great people in Omaha. So many people who are willing to help, to give, to participate. I’m just fortunate that I have the kind of people in this office that do such a great job for the community. I’m very lucky to have those kinds of people here that really believe in what we do. We have great facilities here – medical, law enforcement, etc.
“I think the Bar and the lawyers that we have here do a great job, from every perspective. People care. The way our system works is something to be proud of. Everybody has a role. The prosecutor, the defense attorney, the judge and then these 12 citizens who come in and take time out of their lives to do one of the most important functions they’ll ever do as an American citizen and that’s sit on a jury. They take their job seriously. It’s an honor to be a part of all this. It’s fascinating to watch the system work the way it’s supposed to.”
He’s been approached to judge his interest in other elected offices. But he’s not tempted. “To me, I have an impact every day; I have more impact on the community than a lot of other elected positions.”
How did Kleine get to this job? The Omaha native went to Creighton Prep, then Kearney State College, where he majored in business and Spanish. How’s his Spanish today? “The term is ‘rusty,’” he laughed. He then earned his law degree at Creighton University School of Law.
“Pinky hired me out of law school, right after clerking for the judges of the Douglas County District Court. That set the stage. I enjoyed the work, and I had the opportunity to get in the courtroom.”
He left after five years to open his own law office, then was lured back to the Douglas County Attorney’s office by James S. Jansen. He worked as chief deputy for 12 years. When Jansen left to take another position, the governor appointed Stuart “Stu” J. Dornan as County Attorney. Kleine became Chief of the Criminal Bureau of the Nebraska Department of Justice in Lincoln.
In 2006, he ran for the position of Douglas County Attorney and won, fulfilling a long-time goal. He’s been re-elected twice.
The Big Picture
He likes to look at the big picture. While, he acknowledges, “there are certainly people who do horrible things and belong in prison, there are some we can lend a hand to.” He spoke of a man who approached him at the courthouse and thanked him for giving him a chance, by recommending that he be diverted to Drug Court.
“It’s not just about the people in jail. It’s about: how do we make things better? Treating addiction, mental health, providing services that they need that are lacking. I’ve put a lot of resources into juvenile court. It’s so important to help that young person change their life.”
Will more special courts make a difference in the prison population?
“I like to think we’ve been somewhat on the front end of that. We’re trying to be ahead of the curve. We’re asking questions: How can we fix that person? That’s important to me. It betters the community. It fixes them. It’s all about resources. And it’s sometimes frustrating.”
Did we mention he’s the county coroner too? “In Nebraska, the elected county attorney is the coroner, technically. In fact, I appoint an acting coroner to fulfill that role,” Kleine said.
He serves on the boards of Project Harmony and the Nebraska Organ Recovery System. “That fits in with the coroner position,” he said. “If we can, in this very sad incidence, educate people that we can have something good come out of that situation, we’re going to try to help. We deal with every death in Douglas County.”
In the legal profession, he has served on the board of the National District Attorneys Association and is a board member and past president of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association. He is also a fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers.
What does he think the public needs to know about the practice of and the profession of law?
“What they need to know is how hard lawyers and judges work for their respective clients. For us, our clients are the people of Douglas County. The thing I like to teach is that you can do your job and zealously represent your client and as long as people are doing things the way they are supposed to, the person on the other side is someone you should respect.
“Tom Riley (the Douglas County Public Defender) and I have had a tremendous amount of cases with each other. We’re very good friends and I have the utmost respect for him. We talk all the time. We’re doing our jobs. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
“I think the things the bar does brings people together. I think that’s important. The aspect of getting to know the other lawyers is a very good thing. It’s about justice ultimately.”
Omaha Bar Association Robert M. Spire
Public Service Award
The Robert M. Spire Public Service Award is presented to an attorney or attorney organization. The criteria under consideration for the award includes: (1) The public’s knowledge of the law or the legal system has been enhanced in some significant way by the recipient’s efforts; (2) The recipient has focused on providing service to the community for purposes other than pecuniary profits; and (3) The recipient has demonstrated long term commitment to the enhancement of the public’s knowledge of the law.