Miles W. Lord, a former federal judge whose withering criticism of corporate abuses and forceful rulings in favor of women, minorities, workers, consumers, antiwar protesters and the environment spread his reputation well beyond Minnesota, died Saturday.
He died in Eden Prairie, his family said. He was 97.
Lord served as Minnesota’s attorney general and U.S. attorney from Minnesota before being nominated as a federal judge by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966.
He presided over a series of landmark federal cases, including the Reserve Mining pollution case in the early to mid-1970s and a consumer lawsuit against A.H. Robins, maker of the Dalkon Shield.
Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who succeeded Lord as Minnesota’s attorney general, said Saturday that Lord handled “huge cases that reformed the law and set a new standard for judicial courage.”
“When he got onto something, he really didn’t care about the consequences,” Mondale said. “He wanted to do what was right.”
Hubert Humphrey, the late vice president and a close friend of Lord, once called him “the people’s judge.”
Lord wrote of himself: “I am not anti-corporation, but I am anti-hoodlum, anti-thug, anti-bank robber and anti-wrongdoers. Some of these wolves wear corporate clothing.”
When he retired from the bench in 1985, he started a private law practice where he was joined at various times by all four of his children.
“He instilled in his whole family a moral obligation to look out for others,” said his daughter Virginia Lord, a Twin Cities Realtor. Her sister, Priscilla Lord, a Minneapolis attorney, called her father “my inspiration for my life and career.”
Lord’s cases were the subject of a Mike Wallace profile on CBS-TV's “60 Minutes,” and he was chosen by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America as outstanding federal trial judge of 1981. But his rulings weren't without controversy. A year earlier, American Lawyer magazine named him one of the 11 worst judges in the country.
The Association of Trial Lawyers of America gave him its presidential award in 1984 for his “judicial independence, courage and integrity,” traits that emerged that same year, when he suspended the sentences of two pacifists convicted of damaging a computer at Sperry Inc., a defense contractor.
Lord used his ruling to observe that the Defense Department had accused Sperry of overcharging the government on a big weapons contract and told the two activists it was “difficult for me to equate the sentence I here give you — for destroying $36,000 worth of property because you have been charged — with those of Sperry, who stole $3.6 million of property and were not charged, demoted or in any way punished.”
Lord’s maverick streak evolved from his working-class roots on Minnesota’s Iron Range. Raised in Crosby and Ironton, he was the second youngest of nine children. He became a Golden Gloves boxer, making it to the state championship in his middle weight category in 1939.
He married his childhood sweetheart, Maxine, in 1940. “I tried eloping, but the car broke down,” he recalled in an interview with the Star Tribune.
Lord worked as a welder while at the University of Minnesota and graduated from its law school in 1948. Along the way, he campaigned for Humphrey, who was running for mayor of Minneapolis.
He, Humphrey, and another young activist, Eugene McCarthy, became friends during the early years of the DFL, after the Democrats merged with the Farmer Labor Party.
He was hired as an assistant U.S. attorney in 1951 and made his name as a hard-nosed prosecutor of gangsters and racketeers in the Twin Cities, said attorney Roberta Walburn, a former law clerk.
In 1954, he was elected state attorney general. He was re-elected twice, and remained in the post until 1960. From 1961 to 1966, he was U.S. attorney for Minnesota before ascending to the bench.
To a great extent, Lord said, his causes depended on the almost accidental nature of the court calendar.
One of his proudest decisions was a 1972 permanent injunction in favor of equal rights for women. He ordered the Minnesota State High School League to permit two high school girls who had no girls’ teams at their schools to play on boys’ sports teams.
Two months later, Congress passed Title IX legislation prohibiting gender-based discrimination in federally funded education programs.
In a case that dominated the headlines for years, he ruled that Reserve Mining Co. should be barred from dumping tons of taconite tailings into Lake Superior from its plant at Silver Bay, Minn., because of the health risks.
Lord became locked in a bitter battle with the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which claimed he had shown bias against the company. In 1976, the appeals court took him off the case.
As a judge, Lord tended to side with the underdog. “He thought the decks were stacked in favor of the rich and powerful and set out to balance the scales of justice for the little guy,” Walburn said.
In 1977, with 14,000 steelworkers on strike on the Iron Range, Lord ordered the steel companies to continue to pay the strikers’ health insurance. “Maybe this is war,” Lord said, “but even in war, they have a Geneva conference.” He peered toward the table where the lawyers for the steel firms sat. “Spare the women and children,” he said.
A month later, the steel firms were back in front of Lord, seeking to get the strike declared illegal. In a speech from the bench, he blasted “the steel trust” and offered to mediate a settlement.
The company lawyers got up and walked out of the courtroom, telling a reporter, “We’re going back to Pittsburgh, where we can find a judge we can deal with.”
In a landmark ruling in 1980, Lord sided with environmentalists, ordering a continued ban of motorboats in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
In 1983, he became embroiled in lawsuits brought by women who had suffered severe injuries from using the Dalkon Shield intrauterine birth control device. He compelled the manufacturer, A.H. Robins, to produce thousands of pages of internal corporate documents.
After handling the last 23 cases brought before him for settlement, he ordered the company’s top three executives to appear in his courtroom and accused them of “corporate irresponsibility at its meanest.”
In an admonition reported nationally, Lord told them, “Under your direction, your company has in fact continued to allow women, tens of thousands of them, to wear this device — a deadly depth charge in their wombs, ready to explode at any time.”
Lord is survived by daughters Priscilla and Virginia. His son Jim Lord, a former Minnesota state treasurer, died in 2008. His wife, Maxine, died in 2009, and another son, Mick, who worked with him in his private practice, died in 2012.
A memorial will be held at 4 p.m. Jan. 12 at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church, 301 County Road 19, Excelsior.