Spanning the years: Lyle Strom’s law school graduation
picture in 1953 (left) and as a federal judge today.
Hon. Lyle E. Strom: 1953 to Present
Changes and Accomplishments in Law
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
Part Two of Two
The Hon. Lyle E. Strom has spent 60 years pursuing justice in Omaha. This is the second of a two-part interview with him. During that time, he has worked with most of the legal luminaries of the past half-century.
Strom said he handled a lot of medical malpractice cases. He recalled one in front of Judge Ted Richling, who told the plaintiff during a pre-trial conference, “I don’t know why you don’t just dismiss this case; you can’t win a malpractice case in Nebraska.” The jury returned a defendant’s verdict.
As a member of the Omaha Barristers’ Club, which sponsors the annual Memorial Day event, Strom was tasked with asking Skip DeLacy to speak. He went to see DeLacy, whose response was “How much time do I have?” Told he had 15 minutes, he told Strom, “Young man, I can’t clear my throat in 15 minutes!” He accepted anyway.
That brought to mind a story about a trial that DeLacy had that Strom observed. The plaintiff’s lawyer was none other than The King of Torts, Melvin Belli (pronounced Bell-eye). DeLay insisted on calling the flamboyant lawyer Mr. Belly, making him furious.
The plaintiff was suing her foot doctor for a botched surgery. Belli called his first witness, the plaintiff, who walked up to the stand past the jury. Belli’s very first question was, “Did you walk like that before the operation?” The jury returned a defendant’s verdict. As they always said, it’s tough to win a “med-mal” in Nebraska.
In another med-mal case before the late Douglas County District Court Judge Rudy Tesar, Strom called expert witness Dr. Claude Organ to the stand. He asked him about the medical records, which were “a foot and a half high.”
When Organ realized he had forgotten his glasses, members of the jury offered him theirs. Strom won the case.
“We really tried a lot of cases,” Strom said. “The companies wanted to go to trial; they didn’t want to settle.”
Yes, Strom said, the single biggest change in 60 years, particularly in corporate defendants is that now they ask, “What’s the cheapest way out?”
As U.S. District Judge Albert G. “Duke” Schatz used to say often: “You need to rise above the principal and get to the economics.”
“In a trial, during every recess, Schatz was on you to discuss a settlement.”
“Today, large companies are not as concerned about whether they were right or wrong. They’re interested in ‘what’s the most economical way that we can resolve this matter?’ That probably makes sense, but it deprives the lawyers who like to try cases of the opportunity to try them. They spend more time now in discovery. Discovery is big business now.”
One of Strom’s fellow lawyers was Don Lay, who later became Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Before he was appointed to the bench at the tender age of 39, he was a civil trial lawyer in Omaha.
Lay was with the law firm of Kennedy, Holland, DeLacy and Svoboda. He and Leo Eisenstatt later left there and formed their own Omaha firm, Eisenstatt, Lay, Higgins & Miller.
“Don Lay was a great trial lawyer and I don’t recall that he ever took more than 30 or 40 minutes for a deposition,” Strom said. He also recalled jokingly calling Lay, then a judge, “The Conniver,” for his constant efforts to raise the funds to get a circuit courthouse built in Omaha.
Strom hired Bill Riley (now Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit) to join the Fitzgerald firm upon Don Lay’s recommendation.
“Riley told me that Lay told him: ‘Strom’s the best trial lawyer in Omaha.’ I considered that a real compliment, because I thought Don Lay, without question, was the top personal injury lawyer in Omaha,” Strom said.
Judge Riley weighed in on his mentor, Strom: “Few people have had such a positive influence on our profession and our community as has Lyle Strom: an exceptional trial lawyer and mentor for numerous lawyers; a superb trial judge pursuing justice and fairness for all; an exemplary Boy Scout leader for young men; and a role model for many, including for me. Thank you, Judge Strom, for your sixty years of remarkable service and inspiration.”
Another of Strom’s endeavors was the early stage of construction of the Roman L. Hruska Federal Courthouse, dedicated in 2000.
“It was my responsibility as Chief Judge to get approval of Congress to build the federal courthouse. I was involved in selecting the architect. I had Bill Cambridge sit with me because I knew he would be succeeding me.
“We held our interviews in the courtroom. We had some of the great architects in the country, including I.M. Pei.”
Strom favored Pei but said he didn’t select him because he was already in his eighties and he wasn’t sure Pei would live long enough. “But he did!” Pei is now 96.
Decades of Service
Strom has so many accomplishments spanning his six decades of service, everything from serving as president of the Omaha Bar Association and the Nebraska State Bar, as a faculty member for training of U.S. Attorneys in South Carolina, and as a Scoutmaster and Trustee in the Boy Scouts (“Boy, did I enjoy that!)”, to teaching at Creighton’s law school, and serving as president of the Midwestern Association of Amateur Athletics Union and an executive council member of NSBA for six years. And much more.
Strom noted, “I’m a firm believer that lawyers should get involved … programs designed to help young people in particular. I’ve been in Scouting since ‘the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.’”
Among his accolades are the Robert M. Spire Public Service Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Omaha Bar and induction into the American College of Trial Lawyers. He is the founder of the Robert M. Spire Inns of Court. His assistant Jean Roeder even won the Omaha Bar non-lawyer Public Service Award.
“Grads today are coming out hanging out their shingle, not joining a firm and getting associated with an experienced lawyer; no one to help them, to mentor them,” Strom said.
“The Nebraska Bar did establish a mentoring program but it didn’t work, because we were assigning lawyers to young people and frequently we ran into conflicts. It only lasted two or three years.
“Now, the Inns of Court in Omaha has become the main mentoring program for young [trial] lawyers.”
It was Judge Warren Urbom who introduced him to the Inns of Court in Lincoln.
“He invited me down to Lincoln to attend the Lincoln Inns of Court, which inspired me to create, along with Creighton School of Law Dean Larry Raful, the Omaha Inns of Court in 1994. “Judge Urbom was, in my opinion, the fairest and best trial judge I had the pleasure of trying cases before,” Strom said.
“Since I’ve been a judge, there are two things I’ve done that I’m really kind of proud of. One is the establishment of the Robert M. Spire Inns of Court.
“The other was my decision in 1992 or ’93 in a crack cocaine trial. I had doctors from the east coast and west coast come in to testify, and I learned there was really no real distinction between powder and crack cocaine.
“And that’s when I issued the opinion that the distinction was unjustified. The Court of Appeals disagreed with me.
“I testified in front of Congress about crack cocaine in 1995. They were very kind to me, but it was like talking to a wall. I asked them to revisit the 100-to-one ratio between crack and powder cocaine.”
The distinction warrants two different mandatory sentencing guidelines, one being highly prejudicial to African Americans in particular. Judge Strom was determined to change that disparity.
As Chief Judge, his first case was a challenge to the U.S. sentencing guidelines. He and Judge Urbom decided they were unconstitutional. That opinion was finally confirmed by the Sentencing Commission and Congress finally reduced the ratio from 100-to-one down to 18-to-one.
Judge Since 1985
Strom was nominated by President Ronald Reagan on September 27, 1985, to the seat on the U.S. District Court, District of Nebraska vacated by Albert G. Schatz. Confirmed by the Senate on October 25, 1985, he received the commission on October 28, 1985. He served as chief judge from 1987 to 1994, and assumed senior status on November 2, 1995.
Since taking senior status, he has sat in such varied locales as New Mexico, Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, California, Oregon and Washington, as well as Sioux City, Sioux Falls and St. Paul. He has also sat with the Court of Appeals in St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.
While the 88-year-old has no immediate plans for a real retirement, someday he probably will.
As for the woman by his side, “We walk out of here together,” he said. They have worked together since 1985. But Roeder said, “I knew him a dozen years before that, and …” Strom interjected: “As she says to everybody, ‘I still decided to go to work for him!’”