Heaney looks back - and forward

Gerald Heaney
Judge Heaney's political life spans nearly 80 years. His childhood helped define his influential decisions over forty years on the federal bench.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

His name isn't well known. But Gerald Heaney is a key part of the generation that drove Minnesotans into national politics: Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy, Orville Freeman, and Walter Mondale.

For three generations Heaney has organized and strategized behind-the-scenes in the DFL party.

Judge Heaney at work
Judge Gerald Heaney at work in his Duluth office. He will retire from the bench at the end of the summer after decades of service to the courts and the DFL party.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

His court rulings have had an impact on everyday life for all of us, especially in the field of civil rights.

President Lyndon Johnson appointed Heaney to the federal bench in 1966.

The nomination came from Senator Eugene McCarthy. But Heaney says all of Minnesota's top Democrats were behind him.

"Fritz was also in the Senate, Orville was Secretary of Agriculture, and Hubert was Vice President," Heaney recalls with a chuckle. "My hearing lasted about 10 minutes. McCarthy and Mondale came in and said a few nice things and that was it. Not like today."

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Heaney's been in politics since he was a kid. He grew up in Goodhue in southeastern Minnesota. His mentor was a lawyer who campaigned for Al Smith, a Progressive who ran for president against Herbert Hoover in 1928.

"And on Saturdays he'd take me in his car and we'd go out and nail up Al Smith signs on the telephone poles on the rural roads in Goodhue County," Heaney says. "And the next Saturday we'd have to go back and do the same thing, because they'd all be torn down!"

Heaney's father owned a meat market. There were seven children. During the Depression, the family had enough to eat but not much money. Others had even less. It was a time when men traveled the country looking for work, or food.

"I can remember the times when we'd be having lunch and there'd be a knock at the back door," he says. "If my father was home he'd insist that they come in and have lunch with us at the table."

Heaney got a scholarship for college. Then he tackled law school, where he met Orville Freeman.

"It comes down to what you think is best for our country in the long run."

He served in the Army during World War II. He landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, and fought across Europe until the end of the war.

Then he married his sweetheart, Eleanor, and they moved to Duluth.

It didn't take long for Heaney to get involved in politics again. 1948 was a turning point for the DFL party.

Leftists supported Henry Wallace over incumbent President Harry Truman. They didn't like Truman's hard-line confrontation with the Soviet Union; they thought it would be better to try to cooperate with the former ally.

But Heaney, and his friends Orville Freeman and Hubert Humphrey, didn't want the party to move so far to the left.

"It wasn't a time when we took a lot of polls and tried to figure out what people thought. This is what we believed," he says. "And Hubert Humphrey was able to articulate that better than anybody that I have ever known. And Orville was a great organizer and a disciplinarian, and he provided the steel that kept the DFL party together."

Humphrey was running for Senate. Heaney organized his supporters in Duluth and on the Iron Range.

The DFL convention that year was a triumph for the Humphrey wing. Humphrey went on to the national convention and electrified delegates with a dramatic speech calling on the Democratic party to support civil rights.

Heaney brought his social and political beliefs to the federal court.

Laura Underkuffler worked for him as a law clerk. Now she teaches law at Duke University. She says Heaney's opinions were clearly written and influential.

"Many of the positions that he has attempted to establish over the years indeed became the law, withstood any further appeal, and became really quite important in the thinking of other federal judges and other state judges," she says. "His rulings on school integration in particular became models for other courts around the country."

Heaney wrote a book about his nearly 20-year supervision of the St. Louis public schools. He helped design a busing program that encouraged tens of thousands of inner city kids to attend schools in the suburbs, and at the same time channeled more money into city schools to improve the education there.

Latonya Davis rode the bus 45 minutes every morning and every afternoon, to get to a suburban school. She says the atmosphere there, and the expectations, changed her life.

Latonya Davis
Latonya Davis was one of thousands of inner city children who chose to bus to suburban schools under the integration plan supervised by Judge Heaney's court. She says she never would have thought of going to college if not for her experience at the suburban school.
Photo courtesy Marilyn Zimmerman

"I didn't even expect to go to college," she recalls. "My junior year in high school, I had a teacher say, 'So what college you going to?' and I was like, 'I'm not going.' Because I just knew it was expensive, and I didn't think to go. I had bunch of teachers push me, and help me find ways to pay for it. They really wanted me to succeed in life."

Now she's a teacher, with a master's degree.

The state of Missouri appealed Heaney's decisions to the U.S. Supreme Court seven times, and each time the high court affirmed his rulings.

He also wrote opinions affirming equal rights for women, and criticizing the death penalty.

Recently, Heaney watched the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Roberts said he would be guided by the law, and not by his own personal opinions. Judge Heaney says he's heard more than 3,000 cases in his forty years on the bench. And he says it's more personal than that.

"We all have life experiences," he says. "My life experiences were growing up in a small town, with a kind father, serving in the army, representing the labor movement, being involved in politics. So finally when you get a hard case, a tough case that people can reasonably disagree on, it comes down to really what you think is best for our country in the long run."

This summer Judge Gerald Heaney is writing opinions on his last batch of cases. In the fall he'll start his next career -- raising scholarship money for students at UMD.