Retired Supreme Court Justice Returns To Private Practice, But With a Twist 3/8/17 03/08/17 10:46:54 AM
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Retired Supreme Court Justice William M. Connolly cherishes this painting from Finland. “It looks like the Court of Appeals with six judges, doesn’t it?” He acquired the painting after he and a partner sold a bank building they owned. It was hanging in his house, but “Betty thought it would be better down here.”
Retired Supreme Court Justice Returns
To Private Practice, But With a Twist
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
Bill Connolly played baseball (second base) in front of cheering fans, half of whom were pro scouts. Was he really that good? Well, Bob Gibson was on his team when he attended Creighton University. Draw your own conclusions.
“They weren’t scouting me at all. It was more like that Peter Paul and Mary song, ‘Right Field.’”
Right field, it’s easy, you know.
You can be awkward and you can be slow.
That’s why I’m here in right field
Just watching the dandelions grow.
We reminded him of the time, a few years ago, when he played in the Douglas County Attorneys v. Omaha Barristers softball tournament. He had an opportunity to slide into second base, and did. “That was stupid,” he laughed. No lasting repercussions fortunately.
The former Nebraska Supreme Court justice was an enthusiastic athlete, playing baseball and football while an undergrad at Creighton. He also worked full-time at a bar for two of his years in law school, also at Creighton. “The school didn’t know, I’m sure. I have total amnesia about 1961 through ’63, except for the Cuban Missile Crisis in ’62.
“Even though I was married with kids, I was worried about the possibility of being called up. Years later, when I was on the Supreme Court, we had the pleasure of having lunch with Ted Sorensen (President Kennedy’s White House counsel and speechwriter) who told us the inside story on how close we came to nuclear war.”
Born at St. Joseph Hospital on 10th Street, Connolly expressed fond memories of growing up at 18th and Lake Streets, earning spending money delivering papers at 24th and Lake, then later as a young adult, enjoying the jazz and swing bands appearing at Allen’s Showcase.
He was the first college graduate in his Irish Catholic, working-class family.
After graduation from law school, he moved to Hastings and became a deputy Adams County attorney. Then he was elected county attorney and served for seven years. He spent the next 20 years as a trial attorney in private practice, until his appointment to the then-newly created Nebraska Court of Appeals in 1992. Two years later, he was elevated to the Supreme Court.
The Nebraska Constitution mandated that all members of the Supreme Court live in Lincoln, until “Mike McCormack came on. He lived in Omaha and didn’t want to live in Lincoln. He and Sen. Chris Abboud were having pizza at Big Fred’s in Omaha when the senator said ‘Why don’t we get a Constitutional amendment?’
“So, the ‘Big Fred’s Pizza amendment’ as we called it was passed. Now Supreme Court members can live anywhere in their district.” Connolly opted to keep an apartment in Lincoln and a house in Omaha.
He and his wife, Betty, have a blended family of five adult children, including son Tom, who is a celebrated lawyer in Washington, D.C. (He’ll be speaking at Creighton University on March 22.)
“Betty was a lawyer too; we practiced together in Hastings. She was a non-traditional student who went back to law school. She practiced transactional law and I did the trial work.”
Connolly retired from the Supreme Court on August 1, 2016, then started work at the law firm of Erickson|Sederstrom in November. Why not just retire?
After a couple of months of retirement, he said, “I was thinking about doing something, and when the firm contacted me, I thought it was right up my alley. “Besides, when you have two opinionated people [under one roof], elbows can get sharpened,” he said with a laugh.
And why go into mediation and arbitration?
“I wanted to be involved with the law. But I didn’t want to go back to trying cases.
I’ll probably make some lawyers mad when I say this, but this work is not as tough as practicing law in the courtroom. I thought I could bring my skills to mediation and arbitration.
“I didn’t want to get involved again in ‘death by deposition,’ as we used to call it.”
It looks like his transition at this phase of his career is easier than the last.
After 22 years on the Nebraska Supreme Court and over two years on the Nebraska Court of Appeals, he said it was “a huge change from [being] a trial attorney to [being] a judge. It’s an attitude change. You are an advocate, then as a judge you must put aside that advocate hat and put on more of an umpire’s hat.”
There’s that sports talk again.
He reminisced, “When I worked in Hastings, KHAS was a radio station where everybody did everything. And they produced some fine broadcasters. Fred White went to the Kansas City Royals and an Irish guy, who went back to Boston and became, briefly, the voice of the Celtics on radio.
“When I was a young lawyer in Hastings, I befriended the sports broadcaster there; we went up to Columbus and I was his guest commentator. At halftime, he asked how the Creighton football team was doing. Creighton hadn’t had a football team since WWII, but I said, ‘They’re doing wonderful, they’re undefeated!’ People called to say ‘who is that idiot?’”
Putting aside his brief broadcasting career, he wisely chose law.
He loves the writing. “Writing – those blessed nuns in English class. If I could do anything, I could diagram a sentence! But, if anybody says writing comes easy to them, I’m a little dubious.”
He goes to his bookcase and finds the book he’s looking for: “The Art of Plain Talk,” by Rudolf Flesch. The 1946 book gives ideas and techniques for simple communication in everyday English. “This is my inspiration.”
At Erickson|Sederstrom, “I’m helping with appellate briefs, organizing them and editing them. I’ve also appeared with other firms on appeals they have pending. We talk about strategy and briefing.”
He is also teaching Practical Law at Creighton Prep with Mike Shreves.
He was recently chosen as legal counsel by a special legislative committee to investigate the claim that State Sen. Ernie Chambers doesn’t live in the district he represents.
“I’m happy. Keeping busy. It’s nice to be around young people. Keeps you up on everything.”
It’s a different way of life now.
He said the biggest low of being a Supreme Court justice is the isolation. “You don’t have much opportunity to socialize. It helps to have a good working group on the court. You don’t even see them very often. It’s almost monastic. I got three or four telephone calls a month and two of them were from my wife, to bring bread and milk home. I do have to get out of the judge’s mode and attend bar functions and mingle.”
He gave some advice to aspiring judges: “To be a judge, you need a broad experience, especially in the courtroom, trying cases, jury cases. That’s hard to get these days because of mediation and arbitration. The prestigious organization of the American College of Trial Lawyers used to require experience in 75 jury trials, but they’ve dropped it considerably.
“My advice is to go out in greater Nebraska and be a deputy county attorney or public defender and get that trial experience.” He noted that most Nebraska judges these days come from the prosecutorial side and not the “dark side” of public defenders because of the party affiliation of recent governors. He also noted that civil trials are much more difficult than criminal ones, because they are so complicated.
Connolly said a list of some of his most memorable cases starts with striking down Nebraska’s death by electrocution. “That stirred some controversy.”
In 2008, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled the state’s use of the electric chair was cruel and unusual punishment – and unconstitutional. Connolly wrote the Court’s opinion:
“It is the hallmark of a civilized society that we punish cruelty without practicing it. The evidence shows that electrocution inflicts intense pain and agonizing suffering. Therefore, electrocution as a method of execution is cruel and unusual punishment.”
Electrocution, he wrote, “has proven itself a dinosaur more befitting the laboratory of Baron Frankenstein than the death chamber.”
Other controversial cases for which he wrote the opinion included the Keystone Pipeline case. The Nebraska Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision that nullified the controversial Keystone XL pipeline route through Nebraska.
“This appeal is not about the wisdom or necessity of constructing an oil pipeline but instead is limited to the issues of great public concern raised here: which entity has constitutional authority to determine a pipeline carrier’s route and whether LB 1161 comports with the Nebraska Constitution’s provisions controlling this issue,” the ruling said.
There was also the Annexation of Elkhorn by Omaha (the Court upheld it) and the Jeremy Sheets case, which the Court reversed. Sheets was accused along with Adam Barnett of murdering Kenyatta Bush in 1992. He spent three years in jail before the Court upheld the Court of Appeals ruling that Barnett’s statement against Sheets could not be used as evidence because Barnett had died before being able to testify in court.
He said his most difficult one was the Hopkins case, prompting this newspaper account:
“The four-judge majority determined that the mother had presented evidence that the girls were not at significant risk from daily, unsupervised contact with their stepfather, who served prison time for felony sexual assault on a child.
“The decision prompted dissents from two judges, a rare circumstance for Nebraska’s high court. Judge William Connolly … called the majority opinion a ‘tortuous statutory analysis’ that leaves a father ‘feeling helpless to protect his children.’”
“I guess my dissent got someone’s attention! Currently LB 60 was introduced this year to change the law.”
It’s clear that Connolly’s career, past and present, does not allow him to “watch the dandelions grow.”