Harvey Perlman on Warren K. Urbom

Harvey Perlman is currently a Professor of Law at the University of Nebraska College of Law, having stepped down after sixteen years of service as Chancellor of the University.

Mythology and literature are replete with giants—characters that are physically larger than life. They are often loud of voice, short of temper, seldom astute, and full of self-importance. We recently lost a giant of the law who was none of those things. Warren K. Urbom passed away on July 28, 2017. He was nominated to the federal district court for the district of Nebraska, was confirmed by the United States Senate, and took the oath of office on May 5, 1970. He served for forty-four years, retiring from office on April 25, 2014. He was short of stature, mild in manner, clear in thought and wisdom, and undeservedly humble. He was a remarkable man.

The trappings of a judge can be head-expanding. Answering daily to “your honor.”   Dressed in black robes. Enforcer of the rituals of justice. Conductor of the choreography of a trial. Empowered to confiscate property or imprison. Yet Warren Urbom remained unfazed, tethered to his central understanding of the American legal system—to assure fairness and justice to anyone appearing in his court.

We are fortunate that Judge Urbom chose to write a memoir of his judicial career, which was published by the University of Nebraska Press, Called to Justice:  The Life of a Federal Trial Judge (Bison Books, 2012). Here we see the extraordinary diversity that makes up the federal docket, the matters large and small that find their way to the federal courts, and the pressures that work on judges as they try to resolve disputes. But we also get a better idea of a judge who worried most about not only assuring a fair outcome but having the parties, winners and losers alike, respect the process as fair.

His most defining cases involved the Wounded Knee trials in the early 1970s arising when members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied by force the village of Wounded Knee, resulting in over one-hundred persons being charged with a variety of federal offenses. Judge Urbom was ultimately assigned to try all except the charges against the AIM leadership. At an early trial he was informed that Indians in the courtroom would refuse to stand when he entered, not out of disrespect for him or the court, but because they believed it violated the treaty recognizing Indian sovereignty.  Characteristically, Judge Urbom could not find a connection between the tradition of standing when the judge entered and the implementation of a fair trial. So he asked his bailiff not to use the traditional “please rise.”

Nor could he see a reason for denying Indian witnesses from taking the oath on a sacred pipe. “I saw no problem with the request, because the purpose of an oath is to impress the witness, not the judge or jury, with the importance of telling the truth.” [1]

A state judge in a related matter used force to try to get the Indians to stand, resulting in considerable violence. In his book Judge Urbom downplays subsequent events but I am inclined, recognizing the Judge’s humility, to accept the more dramatic version. The scene was described by one of the defense attorneys as follows:

Tuesday morning, we came into the federal courthouse a little dismayed, you can rest assured, at what had happened the day before. We were hoping, really believing, that we were going to get a favorable ruling on our motion from Judge Urbom. I remember it as if it occurred a moment ago. Judge Urbom sat on the bench. He looked at us, and said, “I tell you truly. When I took the bench I made an oath to follow and to administer the law, and though my heart breaks, the law demands that I deny your motion.” He got up and left the bench. We were heart broken. Fifteen to twenty minutes later, we went back to trying the case.

A couple of days later, it was gray and snowy, and cold in the courtroom. Suddenly, we heard a thundering of feet. The second floor courtroom accommodated about two hundred people and, through the doors, in charged about one-hundred-fifty Sioux Braves. They were dressed in traditional garb: rabbit fur in their braids and, on this bitter cold day, most were wearing vests with Porcupine quill adornments. Not only were we terrified, because we anticipated what would be coming next, but the marshals and the court officers were also terrified. For the first time in my life, except as exhibits, I saw drawn guns in a courtroom. I knew I was going to die. I turned to my client and, putting on a false face of bravado, said, “What’s happening?” The answer was, “Don’t worry, Albert.” This was the only time in six months that my client addressed me by my first name.

As we sat there, tension palpable, Judge Urbom came out from the robing room. The Braves rose; they stood for him. Before Judge Urbom made it to the steps to the bench, he stopped and realized what had happened. Obviously stunned, he walked back into the robing room, and the Braves sat down. For the rest of that day, those Braves rose for Judge Urbom in recognition that we, through that trial, had overcome two-hundred years of butchery, genocide, rape, and deceit. We had shown them that within our judicial process there is integrity and honor.  [2]

My interactions with him were outside the courtroom. When I served as Dean of the University of Nebraska-College of Law, I initially explored with him the idea of establishing an Inns of Court in Lincoln. The Inns traditionally consisted of both experienced and less experienced lawyers. The thought was that engaging together in educational programs would improve the administration of justice. Experience suggested that Inns were more likely to be successful if a federal judge served as its director. Judge Urbom readily agreed. His leadership was nationally-recognized in later years by the national Inns of Court Foundation.

Judge Urbom also agreed, happily, to serve as an adjunct professor of trial practice at the Law College. For many years he taught law students how to properly conduct a trial, deal with evidence, confront the ethical dilemmas that inevitably surface in practice, and how to interact with fellow lawyers and judges.

I believe he viewed his participation in the Inns of Court and at the law school as consistent with his efforts to improve the fairness of the administration of justice—that well-trained lawyers were central to that objective.

His book is appropriately titled. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “calling” as “a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence.” This defined Judge Urbom’s relationship with justice perfectly. Pursing his calling, this man from the small town of Arapahoe, Nebraska made a giant-sized contribution to the law, the legal practice, and the administration of justice.



[1] Warren K. Urbom, Called to Justice:  The Life of a Federal Trial Judge (2012), 140.

[2] Albert Kreiger, “Wounded Knee Revisited:  The Personal Reflections of a Defense Attorney Upon a Water-shed Life Experience,” 10 St. Thomas L. Rev. 45 (1997).

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