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Judge Miles Lord remembered as the 'people's judge'

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Judge Miles Lord
Judge Miles Lord, the man Hubert Humphrey named "the people's judge," died Saturday at the age of 97.
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Updated: Dec. 12, 6:16 a.m. | Posted: Dec. 10, 3:49 p.m.

Judge Miles Lord, the man Hubert Humphrey named "the people's judge" has died. 

Lord died Saturday in Eden Prairie, surrounded by family at the age of 97.

He was one of the founders of the state's DFL party and he also served as state attorney general from 1955 to 1960. But it's his work as a federal judge for which he'll be most remembered.

Lord grew up in Crosby on the Cuyuna Iron Range in northern Minnesota. He was the eighth of nine children born to a lumberjack father and a mother who taught Sunday school.  

Lord was 4 years old when the worst mining disaster in Minnesota history occurred just a few miles away — a lake flooded the Milford Mine and killed 41 miners.  Lord said later that watching the intense labor conflict on the Iron Range as a youngster shaped how he approached the law as an attorney and a judge.

"I watched the people who worked for six months. During the warm summer seasons they'd dig from the open pit mines, in the wintertime they'd be laid off," he said. "I saw that the companies were making their profit but the people were suffering." 

When Lord was about 12 years old, his mother told him he'd make a good lawyer. Later in high school, he questioned a couple of mine superintendents about the future for common labor.  One told him there was no future; the other encouraged him told him to leave town or he'd always be "little Miles."   

"I didn't get much advice when I was a kid, but I listened.  So I got out of town when I was 20, came to Minneapolis, knew no one, and got a lot of jobs working nights and so forth, started law school."

He married Maxine and fathered two sons and two daughters.

After graduation, Lord worked in private practice, and after several years he made an unsuccessful bid for the state Legislature.  But he would make his career in public service, first as a federal prosecutor in 1951, then Minnesota attorney general, then back to the federal court as the state's chief federal prosecutor. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the federal bench.

During Lord's nearly 20 years as a federal judge, he had a number of landmark cases, including his 1974 order that forced Reserve Mining Company to stop dumping its waste rock into Lake Superior.

Before the order, Lord tried to arrange a settlement. After nearly nine months of trial, he called Reserve's chair, C. William Verity, to the stand.  Lord accused Verity of stalling and dragging out the court case in order to squeeze the last dollar of profit out of the operation. 

Lord recalled that he said to him, "now can you get this thing out of the water?  Can you stop poisoning the people downstream and the air and so forth, can you figure out a way to not make so much dust?  And he said, 'we don't have to, we won't.'"

That afternoon, Lord ordered Reserve to stop dumping its waste into Lake Superior and the air. The action immediately put 3,000 people out of work and left the company town of Silver Bay in near desperation.  Some townspeople pointed to the good the company had done, citing the school system and homes they could afford without down payments.

Miles Lord
A Oct. 4, 2005, photo of retired U.S. District Judge Miles Lord, taken in his Chanhassen office.
Jim Mone | AP 2005

The appeals court temporarily halted Lord's decision to close Reserve but ultimately another judge, Edward Devitt, ordered Reserve to stop its discharges in Lake Superior and fined Reserve more than $1 million. 

The case forged a new principle in environmental law — the idea that states should take precautions even when they're not completely sure that an action will seriously harm the environment.  

Lord presided over other landmark cases, including the Dalkon Shield, a birth control device for women sold around the world in the early 1970s, which caused miscarriages, birth defects, sterility and deaths. Minneapolis lawyer Mike Ciresi represented some of the women who'd been harmed by the device. He said Judge Lord allowed a second round of discovery that proved company executives knew the device was dangerous, but sold it anyway.

"A lot of discovery had been done on the defect, but nobody had gotten after the company officials — what did they know, when did they know it and what did they do about it.  And we wanted that and that's what Judge Lord let us go after."

Lord said he personally was most proud of his decision to allow girls to play with boys in high school interscholastic sports. Two teenage girls sued to play on boys' teams because their schools didn't have girls' teams for tennis, cross-county skiing or running.  A state high school league rule barred them from playing on boys' teams.  Lord later recalled the decision didn't come to him intuitively, but that his sister's childhood memories influenced him.

"She says, 'well you remember when we were up at Crosby and the girls could play basketball in old black bloomers with a wobbly ball?  When the boys came on the court, off the court girls, on with the boys.' " 

Lord retired from the bench in 1985 and returned to private practice where he represented clients in personal injury, workers' compensation and criminal cases.     In 2005, Lord asked Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the state Legislature to put a moratorium on new taconite projects on the Iron Range, until questions were answered about health concerns. Scientists had found asbestos-like fibers in the rock.  Lord said the state hadn't fully investigated whether those fibers were making miners sick. 

Lord summed up his legal career in an interview he gave as part of the federal court's "Portraits of Justice" program, which profiled Lord and nine other Minnesota federal judges in 1988. Lord said he just followed his conscience.

"I didn't compromise when I thought I was doing the right thing, I didn't let fear grip me and in the process, to be able to act out some of the genuine concerns I have for the people who couldn't ordinarily do it for themselves and who might not be listened to by another judge."

A public memorial will be held Jan. 12 at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Excelsior.