Vindication has come for federal judge Miles Lord of Minneapolis. He is the jurist of unwavering ire who believes that the crimes of corporations should get the full wrath of the law and of judges. For 20 years on the bench, he has been faithful to delivering on that conviction.
In late December, a disciplinary panel of the 8th Circuit in St. Paul dismissed misconduct complaints brought against Lord by A. H. Robins Company and three of its executives. Robins, the firm that has trapped itself under a rubble of mountainous legal problems, has paid in the past 12 years nearly a quarter-billion dollars in 7,700 settlements involving the Dalkon Shield intrauterine device.
The device, which was withdrawn from the U.S. market in 1974, was described by Lord in courtroom comments as a "deadly depth charge in their (women's) wombs." Lord also spoke of the Robins litigation record and concluded it was littered with stalls and evasions. With the Robins executives before him during a product liability trial, Lord charged them with "corporate irresponsibility at its meanest." Lawyers for the users of the Dalkon Shield have argued that it caused everything from spontaneous abortions and sterility to death.
The Robins men filed misconduct claims and put the judge on trial.
The ruling last week by a 14-judge panel cleared Lord of misconduct. The judge's courtroom speech, however, had been stricken from the record earlier by a different three-judge panel. It is known in Minnesota that Lord is not seen by fellow judges as one of the good old boys. He stands outside conventional juristic behavior: the judge as the impartial referee and the judge who hides all personal feelings.
Blistering speeches from the bench are common in American courtrooms, but it is usually the street criminal -- the drug pusher, the bank robber -- who gets worked over. Society applauds these "get tough" judges. When the toughness is imposed on white, wealthy corporate executives who are model products of our best business schools, then it is concluded, as did Robins, that the judge is screwy and needs punishment himself.
While in Minneapolis a few weeks ago, I spent four hours interviewing Miles Lord. I noticed nothing screwy about him, except for his piling on the hash browns at breakfast. The basic sanity of Miles Lord is that he is one of corporate America's truest friends, not its enemy. He is sympathetic to the bind that the ethical corporate officer often finds himself in: pressured by shareholders to care only for profits, pushed by peers to work against health, safety and environmental laws, and tempted to hide in bigness.
In his conversation, Lord has no self- importance. His love is for justice, truth and action, not himself. He shrugs off the caricature that depicts him as anti-business. In two decades, he has written tens of thousands of words in decisions about corporate crime and has seen about $1 billion assessed in damages.
After all that, he says in bemusement, "I have never been invited by a business group to talk with them about corporate morality. They don't want to hear it. I'm not complaining. I don't need the work. It's just interesting to note that they shut off their hearing when it comes to some bad news."
Lord, who probably would have been appointed to the Supreme Court had his friend Hubert Humphrey been elected president in 1968, stands out among American judges. He operates from a sense of mission, not function. Judges, who tend to be unimaginative risk-avoiders, are comfortable as keepers of the rule, not keepers of the flame. Lord's fire, in the Dalkon Shield tragedies, was responsible for bringing the necessary heat and light to the litigation. Under him, evidence led to action, not another motion for a new trial.
Despite a debt of $70,000 in legal fees to defend himself against the Robins misconduct suit, Lord continues to be steadfast in reminding the public about excessive corporate power.
In November he suspended the sentences of two pacifists who were convicted of damage to a Sperry, Inc., weapons systems. In court, Lord recalled an earlier case he was involved in in which Sperry had overcharged the government on a weapons contract. Lord stated: "It is also difficult for me to equate the sentence I here give you -- for destroying $36,000 worth of property, because you have been charged -- with those (at Sperry) who stole $3.6 million of property and were not charged, demoted or in any way punished."
Then, Lord added, "My conscience is clear." It is such clarity that has assured Lord of continued respect.