Judge Smith Camp Remembered as Nebraska's Ginsburg

Judge Laurie Smith Camp, left, stands with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Lee Shell at a Nebraska State Bar Foundation dinner in Ginsburg’s honor in 2006. (Nebraska State Bar Foundation)
Scott Stewart and David Golbitz
The Daily Record

Laurie Smith Camp was deeply admired by her colleagues in the legal profession, and her absence will be felt long after her sudden death last Wednesday.

Smith Camp “passed away unexpectedly and peacefully at her home overnight,” according to a statement released Thursday afternoon by the court. She was 66.

As a judge for the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska, Smith Camp exemplified fairness and was regarded as a role model by many judges.

“She was committed to the equal protection of the law and the right to counsel,” said David Stickman, federal public defender for the District of Nebraska.

Smith Camp distributed a memo to lawyers outlining her philosophy of sentencing, which stressed the importance that “application of the law should be reasonably predictable.”

In the memo, she outlined factors that she said carried little weight in requesting leniency, including whether the defendant has children, is religious, comes from a good family, is a pillar of the community or is “homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transsexual, inter-sexual, feminine, small, slight-of-build, overweight, a law enforcement officer, a lawyer, a member of the clergy, a child molester, or HIV-positive.” All defendants should be treated the same, she wrote, while also noting that “the objective of punishment itself is of questionable value” – particularly compared to deterrence and rehabilitation.

“I practiced in front of her when I was in private practice, quite a bit,” Douglas County District Court Judge Horacio Wheelock said. “I always felt she had an innate sense of fairness, she always listened to my arguments. Whether she ruled against you or in your favor, she always did it with class and with a well-reasoned decision.”

William Acosta-Trejo, the immediate past president of the Omaha Bar Association, said that Smith Camp was a genuine, kind and intelligent person.

“I remember the first time I met her I thought, that is the epitome of what a judge or a lawyer should be, just the way she conducted herself, the way she carried herself. She was always just top-notch,” Acosta-Trejo said in an emailed statement.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge John Gerrard compared Smith Camp to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died just five days earlier and whom Smith Camp had been working to bring to Omaha this past summer before the coronavirus pandemic scuttled the plans for the 8th Circuit Judicial Conference.

“She truly was the Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Nebraska legal community. And I say that with the highest regard to both of these amazing women,” Gerrard said.

“Like Justice Ginsburg, Judge Smith Camp was a pioneer and advocate of women's rights, a wonderful mother, and she did it all with a quiet grace, compassion and leading by example,” he added. “Her legacy is profound and her historical mark on Nebraska’s federal court is permanent.”

A Trailblazer

Smith Camp was the first woman appointed as a U.S. district judge in Nebraska. She was appointed in 2001 by President George W. Bush and received confirmation by the U.S. Senate by a unanimous vote of all 100 senators. After serving as chief judge since 2011, she took senior status in December 2018.

Because Smith Camp was on senior status, her death does not trigger a judicial vacancy. Judge Brian Beuscher was appointed by President Donald Trump last year to replace her on the bench.

An Omaha native, Smith Camp graduated with distinction from Stanford University in 1974 and went on to attend the University of Nebraska College of Law. She was editor-in-chief of the Nebraska Law Review and graduated in 1977. She began her legal career in private practice for a few years in Nebraska and Kansas.

She served as the general counsel for the Nebraska Department of Corrections from 1980 to 1991, the head of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Civil Rights Section from 1991 to 1995 and chief deputy attorney general for criminal matters at the state attorney general’s office from 1995 to 2001.

“She stood as an inspiration to generations of attorneys in Nebraska and beyond,” said Dave Sommers, executive director of the Omaha Bar Association.

An Advocate

Even after taking senior status, Smith Camp continued to carry an active caseload while remaining involved in the broader legal community, including starting a term in July as the president of the Omaha Bar Association.

Each fall, Smith Camp would welcome new Nebraska attorneys to the practice of law, where she would take the time to get to know more about each of them.

“Judge Smith Camp cared so deeply about the legal profession, and the important role that attorneys and judges hold in our society to bend the arc of history towards justice for all,” Sommers said. “The Nebraska legal community has lost one of its biggest and brightest stars, someone who was looked up to by so many.”

Smith Camp invested time in recent months preparing for the 8th Circuit Judicial Conference, which would have featured remarks by Ginsburg in celebration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Smith Camp recorded a tribute video Monday honoring the legacy of the Supreme Court justice. (Watch the video on YouTube at bit.ly/oba_rbg.)

Smith Camp said that Ginsburg personified “civility, collegiality, public service, equal opportunity and courage” – all attributes that Smith Camp’s mourners also say applied to the Nebraska judge.

In the OBA video, Smith Camp shares some memories of her interactions with Ginsburg, including an exchange of gay wedding scripts in 2013.

“She had just performed a gay wedding for friends of hers, and she received a bit of pushback for that,” Smith Camp said in the video. “That was controversial at that point in time. I have also performed a gay wedding, and we enjoyed each other’s scripts.”

A Woman

In a TEDxOmaha talk in 2013, Smith Camp explored how ethics is instilled in boys and girls, while illustrating how it contributes to the gender achievement gap by detailing a few of the obstacles she encountered in her life.

“When I look back at the 60 years of history that I’ve observed first-hand, and I consider the achievement gap that still persists between men and women in so many areas of society, I attribute much of that gap to two different codes of ethics applied disproportionately by the two sexes,” she said in the video. (Watch the full video at bit.ly/lsctedtalk.)

Smith Camp said that her first job was helping her father in his law office on Saturday mornings when she was 10 years old.

“I noticed that the forms in the office, the legal forms, were different depending upon whether they were for a man or for a woman,” Smith Camp said. “If the form was for a woman, her financial interests were placed in the protection of a man.”

One day, she asked one of the lawyers about it. A lawyer told her, “A man knows who his sons are, but he may not know who his sons-in-law will be.”

“It took me years to figure that one out,” Smith Camp said.

She also asked another partner in the firm why there was so few interactions between the lawyers, who were all men, and the secretaries, who were all women, “although they were called girls, no matter how old they were.”

“The partner told me the story of a brilliant young lawyer who became attracted to his secretary,” Smith Camp said. “The lawyer was married, but that was not an ethical problem. The secretary may not have welcomed the lawyer’s advances, but that was not an ethical problem. The problem occurred when the lawyer gave the secretary partnership funds in exchange for her affections – that was a serious breach of ethics, and the young lawyer was banished in shame.”

While at Stanford, she met with the dean of admissions to ask why women weren’t given equal admissions – especially when the university was otherwise committed to affirmative action for other disadvantaged groups.

“He said, ‘These other groups have communities that we’re trying to lift up. There is no community of women,’” she said.

When Smith Camp graduated law school, many firms still refused to interview women at all.

“One lawyer who did grant me an interview said if I worked in his firm, I’d have to stay in a back office out of sight, because his clients would never work with a woman,” Smith Camp said.

Smith Camp urged her fellow women to commit to taking good care of themselves and to achieve their full potential.

A Developer

In addition to her legal career, Smith Camp and three business partners initiated and sustained the development of Lincoln’s historic Haymarket district from 1982 to 2001. Smith Camp was an owner of the Haymarket Square Partnership and CH Ltd., according to court records.

According to the Lincoln Haymarket Development Corp., the City of Lincoln adopted a redevelopment plan for the Haymarket area in 1984 that called for public infrastructure improvements and private rehabilitation projects.

The Haymarket was selected in 1985 as a demonstration project for the National Main Street Center. It was the first urban warehouse district to undertake that program from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, according to the corporation.

“In the decades that followed, project by project, business by business, with new infrastructure and special events like Farmers Market, the Haymarket has been transformed from a largely vacant, crumbling area into a vibrant part of Downtown Lincoln,” the corporation wrote on its website, lincolnhaymarket.org/history.

A Friend

Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican said the late judge was “a caring and compassionate trial court judge who was recognized by all in the legal community for her intelligent and skilled application of the law.”

“On a personal note, she was a close friend who was always supportive to me and others through good times and bad,” Heavican said. “She was a gracious hostess, skilled conversationalist and generous to all with her time and resources. This is a sad day for the legal profession and for the State of Nebraska.”

Jill Robb Ackerman, a partner at Baird Holm LLP, called Smith Camp an “iconic role model.”

“She epitomized the best of our profession. She was a mentor to young lawyers.  She was an inspiration to women,” Ackerman said. “We will honor her legacy by treating each other with respect and honor, as she did.”

U.S. Attorney Joe Kelly said Smith Camp is sure to be missed.

“Judge Smith Camp was a remarkable person and judge,” he said. “She was brilliant, humorous and kind. Nebraska has lost a great jurist.


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