After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 vastly extended corporate electoral influence on the basis that corporations are persons deserving of free speech, bumper stickers appeared, reading, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.”
No one has yet executed a corporation, but with rulings during the 1970s and 1980s in the landmark Reserve Mining and Dalkon Shield cases, Minnesota’s late Miles Lord, one of America’s most controversial federal judges, came close.
Roberta Walburn’s book, “Miles Lord: The Maverick Judge Who Brought Corporate America to Justice,” is part biography, part memoir, and wholly a legal page turner. Walburn, who began her own distinguished legal career working for Lord, is an unabashed partisan of the judge’s hard-punching judicial style. She alternates chapters about Lord’s life with chapters about the Dalkon Shield case, during which she clerked for Lord. That case resulted in the award of nearly $3 billion in damages to more than 200,000 women who suffered horrific infections because of the infamous Dalkon Shield intrauterine device. The case ended with the bankruptcy of A.H. Robins, a Fortune 500 corporation.
Lord, who died in December at age 97, grew up in an impoverished family on the Iron Range. A Golden Gloves boxer as a young man, Lord also fought in bars and carnival rings. He carried that combativeness into politics and the law.
After Lord married and moved to Minneapolis to work his way through college and law school, he became involved with DFL politics and began a lifelong friendship with Hubert Humphrey. During the 1968 presidential election, Lord acted as liaison between the rival campaigns of his friends Humphrey and Eugene McCarthy. Walburn takes a good look at Humphrey, McCarthy and others from the days when Minnesota icons of social-gospel liberalism wielded national influence.
In the legal system, Lord rose from being a tough prosecutor who helped Bobby Kennedy go after Jimmy Hoffa to become a judge who issued controversial rulings in landmark cases, including Reserve Mining and Dalkon Shield. Both rulings (or, more accurately, the Reserve Mining ruling and Lord’s scathing speech to A.H. Robins executives during the Dalkon Shield settlement) landed the unconventional judge in hot water with the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Walburn skillfully arranges the chapters so that the Reserve Mining and Dalkon Shield cases come to a climax in alternating chapters in the last third of the book. “Miles Lord” is a book that’s hard to put down, providing insight not only into Lord’s colorful life, but into the heyday of Minnesota liberal politics, the legal machinations of corporations and the inside workings of the judicial system.
John Reimringer’s first novel, “Vestments,” was a Publishers Weekly best book of 2010. He is at work on a second novel. He lives in St. Paul.
By: Roberta Walburn.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 400 pages, $29.95.
Event: 7 p.m. Oct. 24, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.