When a jeweler denied hiding merchandise from creditors, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Nancy Dreher didn't mince words.

"This individual defendant stole stuff ... a lot of jewelry, about a quarter of a million dollars' worth of jewelry," Dreher said in court. "I think he's lying to me right now, and I don't think that I can dare let him get away with it."

It was classic Dreher, trading bankruptcy jargon for plain talk.

"She had a very common- sense, practical approach to dealing with cases," recalled Brian Leonard, a veteran bankruptcy attorney.

Dreher died last month at her home in Edina after a long battle with complications from lung disease. She was 70.

Appointed to the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Minnesota in 1988, she became a leader in that field of law. Former Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist made her the sole bankruptcy judge on a human resources panel for the judiciary. In 2007, she became the first woman to be elevated to chief bankruptcy judge in Minnesota.

In bankruptcy court, Dreher argued for adequate legal representation for the needy. She urged confused filers to visit a free bankruptcy legal clinic for advice.

"The perfect way to deal with it would be to provide just about everybody who needs it with free lawyering," she once said.

The lawyers who worked bankruptcy court soon learned that Dreher favored negotiations to speed up cases. "She would sit down in informal meetings outside the courtroom with the parties and try to get them to resolve their disputes," Leonard said.

Before becoming a judge, Dreher practiced commercial litigation in Minneapolis and was appointed to head a committee set up by the Minnesota Supreme Court to study lawyer discipline. "As a result, there was a more professional prosecution of disciplinary violations," recalled Allen Saeks, an attorney who worked with her.

Dreher was physically active most of her life, running several marathons and participating in downhill skiing and scuba diving. But she slowed down after being stricken about a dozen years ago with an unidentified illness that left her lungs severely damaged.

She received a double lung transplant in 2004 and did well until bacterial infections and organ rejection set in last spring, said her husband, Roger.

Dreher was determined to remain on the bench as long as possible and she did so until early November, overseeing a major bankruptcy case involving the sale of 14 KFC outlets.

"She would muster her energy," Roger recalled. "She said, 'I don't want those lawyers out there looking at me like I'm going to keel over.'"

Trying to forge a settlement, Dreher lamented a lack of negotiations in the KFC case.

"It's one of those cases that gives the bankruptcy system a bad name, and maybe deservedly so," she said in court.

"That was her parting shot," Roger said.

Dreher died Nov. 23. Besides her husband, she is survived by son David of Portland, Ore., daughter Laura Timmel of Western Springs, Ill., and sisters Joan Koski of Bryan, Texas, and Kim Weber of Montello, Wis.

A memorial service will be held 4-7 p.m. Dec. 17 at Edina Country Club, 5100 Wooddale Av., Edina.

Staff writers Abby Simons and Mike Hughlett contributed to this story. Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504