‘Holy’ Miles Lord echoes through Minnesota history

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

To some, judges are supposed to stay hidden in the chambers of Minnesota law, better forgotten than seen or heard.

But we learn about one judge who relished the spotlight and used it well in “Miles Lord: The Maverick Judge Who Brought Corporate America to Justice.” This new book from the University of Minnesota Press comes from Lord’s one-time law clerk Roberta Walburn, now a prominent Minnesota attorney.

Lord grew up in the Cuyuna Iron Range town of Crosby, a golden gloves boxer who “punched above his weight” as they say. And he wouldn’t have considered himself a lightweight by any means. In fact, later as a federal judge Lord would become known as a fierce advocate for the rights of citizens against the unchecked power of corporations.

Among many fascinating details in Walburn’s book is the role that this strident Iron Ranger, Miles Lord, played in our state and nation’s 20th Century political history. Once the Attorney General of Minnesota, Lord became a close friend of Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy and other prominent DFLers.

Senators Humphrey and McCarthy represented different wings of the Democratic Party during the tumultuous 1960s. In the heated 1968 presidential campaign, Lord served as a the primary means of communication between Humphrey and McCarthy. As they entered the convention in Chicago each battling for the Democratic nomination, Lord sought peace between the former friends. Unfortunately for Democrats that year, the times were a-changin’ too quickly. The party fissure failed to heal. Humphrey won the nomination, but lost to Richard Nixon later that year.

The last few years of Mesabi Iron Range discourse drips with threats that environmental regulation will “shut down the mining industry.” Often lost is the fact that the only non-economic mining shutdown that’s occurred in the taconite era came when Judge Lord briefly shut down Reserve Mining in Silver Bay in 1974.

“Miles Lord: The Maverick Judge Who Brought Corporate American to Justice” by Roberta Walburn (University of Minnesota Press)

Reserve Mining in Silver Bay (now Northshore, operated by Cleveland-Cliffs) was dumping its taconite waste tailings into Lake Superior, clouding the largest freshwater lake in the world and tainting Duluth’s drinking water down shore. The mine argued, falsely, that it could not dispose of the tailings in an on-ground process the way all the other Iron Range mines did.

Lord delivered an order to shut the mine down until the company revealed a better plan. North Shore locals bemoaned “holy” Miles Lord and an appeals court removed him from the case for overreaching.

Nevertheless, the courts forced Reserve to create an on-ground tailings basin. Yet, Reserve delayed the undertaking for six years after Lord’s order. This frustrated Lord. As Walburn points out, even the mining companies now widely agree that dumping waste rock in the lake is dangerous.

It’s hard to read about this now, decades after the fact, without drawing parallels to today’s mining debate. What people and companies say and what they do are often different. It takes a sense of justice to hold them accountable to their promises. Lord, who grew up around mining, lived by this principle.

The bulk of the book focuses on arguably Judge Lord’s biggest judicial moment, presiding over the case against A.H. Robins, maker of the “Dalkon Shield.” This IUD was making women sick, causing permanent damage to their reproductive organs, and even killing some women. Here, too, Walburn uses the structure of her story to build a compelling climax out of a story set amid courtrooms and boxes of documents.

A thick book about a federal judge requires some comic relief, and in this Lord himself delivers the zingers. Walburn’s “in the room” narrative lets us hear the judge’s salty language and sharp sense of humor.

Walburn presents a fair characterization of Lord, though certainly sympathetic to the judge’s point of view. At times a populist hero fighting corporate powers, Lord could also be stubborn, short tempered and old-fashioned. Today, judges pretend to be bland, replaceable cogs (even when they’re not) in order to be confirmed by Congress. Walburn describes Lord as a “romping and stomping” judge.

As a fellow judge, Robert Renner, said after a disciplinary hearing (that Lord won) “Regardless of whether you agree with him or disagree with him, there is a place and a time for Judge Lords in the federal judiciary … although, I don’t know that we want too many.”

Walburn herself writes this of Lord, who died a year ago at age 98:

“He was born and bred to take on bullies, from the schoolyards and pool halls of the Range to the boardrooms of corporate America. He had fought his battles, he would say, because of his love for the little guy.”

Roberta Walburn’s “Miles Lord” is a fitting, fascinating remembrance of a judge willing to stake his reputation on the powerless, rather than on the powerful.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Dec. 10, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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