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Miles Lord, outspoken and influential federal judge, dies at 97

DULUTH -- Longtime federal Judge Miles Lord, who in nearly two decades on the bench in Minnesota built -- and embraced -- a reputation as an outspoken and controversial champion of the underdog against the powerful and wealthy, died Saturday at a...

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DULUTH - Longtime federal Judge Miles Lord, who in nearly two decades on the bench in Minnesota built - and embraced - a reputation as an outspoken and controversial champion of the underdog against the powerful and wealthy, died Saturday at age 97.

Among Lord’s landmark decisions were the 1974 ruling that barred Reserve Mining from discharging taconite tailings from its Silver Bay plant into Lake Superior, and a 1980 ruling that upheld the right of the federal government to restrict motorboats and snowmobiles in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

His death was reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio News.

“I tried to put the spotlight on the big boys, the rich, the overprivileged,” he told the News Tribune in 1991, six years after he retired from the federal bench. “... They’re the guys with all the dough, the guys who try to break the plaintiff by making litigation long and expensive.”

Lord served as Minnesota’s attorney general from 1955 to 1960, and as U.S. attorney for Minnesota from 1961 to 1966 before being appointed a U.S. District Court judge by President Lyndon Johnson. He served on the federal bench until 1985.

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Former Vice President Walter Mondale on Saturday told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Lord “set a new standard for judicial courage. ...

“He really didn’t care about the consequences,” Mondale told the Star Tribune. “He wanted to do what was right.”

‘People’s judge’ Lord, who was given the moniker “the people’s judge” by Hubert Humphrey, said his dislike for “bullies” dated back to his childhood in Crosby on the Cuyuna Iron Range, where he became a Golden Gloves boxing champion.

“I always hated bullies and fought them in any way I could,” he told the News Tribune in 1991. “I stuck up for kids who were being picked on or beaten up.”

Of taking part in and presiding over legal battles years later, he said, “I never felt intimidated by the big corporations. They never intimidated me for the same reason big men never intimidated me. Big men depend on their size; they don’t have to be skilled.”

Among the biggest cases he heard was the long-running one involving Reserve Mining on the North Shore.

In 1972, the federal government filed a lawsuit against Reserve, alleging that the tailings being dumped from the Silver Bay taconite plant were polluting Lake Superior. On one side, there were concerns from environmental groups and other officials about the possible health effects of those tailings - including reports of asbestos-like fibers in the air and water. On the other, thousands of mining jobs in Northeastern Minnesota at the plant and the mine in Babbitt that supplied it.

In April 1974, Lord ordered the plant to shut down, writing: “Under no circumstances will the court allow the people of Duluth to be continuously and indefinitely exposed to a known human carcinogen in order that the people in Silver Bay can continue working at their jobs.”

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That ruling was later overturned on appeal, and Reserve was allowed to continue dumping tailings in the lake until it opened an on-land disposal site in 1980.

In the meantime, Lord was removed from the case by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1976, with the appeals panel writing that Lord “seems to have shed the robe of the judge and assumed the mantle of the advocate” and exhibited “gross bias” against Reserve in his actions from the bench.

Lord, for his part, said at the time that he did his “best to provide for the maximum protection of the public health consistent with due process to all concerned.”

His polarizing reputation was evident a few years later - in 1980, American Lawyer magazine named Lord one of America’s 11 worst federal judges. In 1981, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America picked him as their outstanding federal trial judge of the year.

Lord’s rulings in the Reserve case, among others involving the mining industry, led to an at-times-prickly relationship with business and political leaders in Northeastern Minnesota.

If someone “speaks out against the mining companies, he’s helpless, a beached whale” in the 8th Congressional District, Lord told a Duluth crowd in April 1976.

Other rulings Among Lord’s other significant rulings affecting the Northland, in July 1980 he dismissed three lawsuits - including one filed by the state of Minnesota - challenging the constitutionality of the 1978 Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act. That legislation, among other actions, banned motors from the BWCAW.

At the time, an attorney for the Sierra Club called Lord’s ruling “the greatest step in the last 50 years to put the controversy that surrounds the BWCA to bed.”

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Lord also intervened in a 1977 steelworkers’ strike, ordering that steel companies continue to pay health insurance premiums for 18,000 striking workers on the Iron Range and in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Lord, for his part, told the News Tribune in 1991 that he was most proud of a 1972 ruling in favor of two female high school students who were seeking to play sports on boys’ teams; their schools didn’t have girls’ teams in certain sports.

“That has done more to change the lives of more young women than anything else I’ve done,” he said.

Lord returned to private practice after stepping down from the bench. MPR News reported that a memorial service for Lord will be held Jan. 12 at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in Excelsior, Minn.

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