Judge Warren Keith Urbom is dead at age 91. He died on July 28, 2017. I am not sad.
Warren attended the Iliff School of Theology, an independent graduate school related to the United Methodist Church, before deciding to study law at the University of Michigan, where he graduated with honors. He understood, far better than many, that death is a part of living.
Death can come too early and it can come too late. In Warren’s case, it came slightly late, but not so late that he was robbed of too much of his dignity. That makes me happy.
Warren was my judicial colleague for a long time: from 1987 to 1992, when I was a magistrate judge, and from 1992, when I was appointed a district judge[i], to April of 2014, when he stopped coming to the office.[ii] I knew him far longer, beginning when I was a law clerk to Judge Donald R. Ross of the Eighth Circuit (1972-1974). He was then, even in his early years, regarded as one of the finest federal trial judges in the country.[iii]
I will never forget the time when, as a mere law clerk, I met Judge Urbom in the hallway on the ninth floor of the old Omaha federal courthouse. He said, “Hi, Rich.” I was thrilled. The great Warren Urbom knew my name. He had absolutely no reason to remember my name and even less of a reason to greet me warmly. But that kindness was the essence of Warren.
Just put into any search engine “Judge Warren Urbom,” and you will be amazed at what you will find about this truly remarkable man and his career. I don’t intend to catalogue all his numerous accomplishments, but I will provide a few more details that are illustrative of Warren as a judge and a person.
As a young judge (he was 44 when appointed[iv]), he presided over more than 100 of the “Wounded Knee” cases by designation of the Eighth Circuit. He became so respected by the Native American defendants, their lawyers (such as the great criminal defense lawyer, Albert Krieger) and their mass of supporters that, at one of the last trials, when Warren took the bench they arose in unison and without prompting, to show their respect for him. Rising when the judge entered was something the defendants and their supporters had adamantly refused to do, once causing a great ruckus when another judge insisted upon the Marshals opening court with, and then trying to enforce, the “all rise” mantra. Warren had told the U.S. Marshals not to use the command when he presided. As it turned out, he didn’t need it.
Warren and I were not friends, although we were friendly. He believed in the afterlife. I do not. He believed judges should do justice. I believed (and still believe) that was a fool’s errand. Judges should do law, so I said and still believe. But these differences were not the reasons why Warren was not my friend. Basically, I was unable to befriend Warren because he was a giant, both intellectually and morally. I felt so damn inferior. I frequently referred to him in private (just him and me) as “Judge.” His first name almost always stuck in my maw. I could never figure out how to befriend such a God-like creature.
Warren was a preeminent trial lawyer. That allowed him to become a preeminent trial judge. In my opinion, and with apologies to Judge Jack Weinstein, Judge John Kane and a few others, Warren was the best all-around federal trial judge in the nation when he was at the height of his powers.[v] I don’t think it was even close.
As a judge, he loved trying cases to juries. He once conducted two very important and complex jury trials at the same time over an extended period of time. One trial started in the early morning and ended in the early afternoon when that jury went home. The other started in the early afternoon when the second jury showed up, and that trial went into the evening hours. So it went, day after day. Amazing.
Warren’s life as a child and as a judge was not entirely a bed of roses. Two events are connected, I think, and are important to your understanding of the man and the judge. Out in central Nebraska and northern Kansas where he grew up, Warren and his brother hunted birds with a pellet gun. As can happen with kids and guns, Warren got in the way of his brother’s shot and lost an eye. Thereafter, the badly damaged organ was removed to be replaced with an artificial eye.
Later, as he was growing into adulthood, he manhandled a bulldozer and other heavy equipment for his father’s dirt-moving operation. I am not sure, but I suspect that the noise of these big machines likely damaged his hearing. Later, Warren was almost entirely bilaterally deaf unless he wore his hearing aids. Warren never complained about his blindness or his hearing loss. Out of sheer will and blinding brilliance, he overcame those defects in the many courtrooms where he appeared either as a trial lawyer or as a trial judge.
And then, much, much later, Warren accidentally killed a man. A reporter, who could write almost as beautifully as Warren, tells the story that I will employ to bring this post to a conclusion.
I next quote the entire article. You must read it. Truly, and although it is long, you must read it. Literally, I beg you to read it.
Judge Warren Urbom and his wife had no idea how the widow of the man he’d hit with his car would react to seeing them at her door Saturday, the day after the accident.
Would she be angry? Hate him? Forgive him?
After a night of no sleep, Judge Warren Urbom phoned the home of a woman he didn’t know, a new widow.
Her son answered.
Can we come over? the judge asked. We want to bring our condolences. And I need to speak to Mrs. McEntarffer.
Yes, the son said, you can come over.
This happened Saturday, the day after the U.S. District judge turned his car into Fred McEntarffer, who was riding his motorcycle downtown and who died a few hours later.
The judge’s wife is telling this story now to a newspaper reporter who called, because her husband can’t. It’s too hard for him, she says, the worst thing that’s happened in his 80 years.
“Warren told them, ‘My wife will drive me over.’”
Joyce Urbom says they had no idea how Mrs. McEntarffer would feel, seeing them at her door. Anger? Hate?
They had trouble finding the place because it was in an area of southwest Lincoln they didn’t know, Joyce says.
They saw people outside a home in the Harbour West Mobile Home Park. She stopped the car. Warren rolled down his window. One of the men standing there called out to him:
This is the place. You’ve found the place. She’s waiting inside.
The young man introduced himself as Jon McNeel, a son-in-law. He hugged the judge.
“He said, ‘I want you to know there are no hard feelings here.’”
They walked to the mobile home, still wondering how Mrs. McEntarffer would feel.
They knew many people were angry.
The night before, maybe 11 p.m., the phone rang at the Urboms’ home on Ridgeview Drive. The judge answered. It was a woman’s voice:
Do you know where you’re going to be driving next? If you do, tell me so I’ll know what streets to stay off of.
Then she hung up.
On the morning of the visit to Mrs. McEntarffer’s home, a story about Friday’s accident ran in the paper. The judge, on his way to deliver a speech to the Kiwanis Club, was driving west on L Street in the middle lane of the one-way when he tried to turn left onto 13th and collided with a motorcyclist.
The motorcyclist, 74-year-old Fred McEntarffer, was a retired corrections officer at the penitentiary, someone “loved by all.”
The story said Urbom went on to give his speech, then found out the man had died.
People posted comments on the Journal Star Web site. The comments showed anger, hate, forgiveness.
Hmmmm… wrote on September 09, 2006 12:57 AM: “He runs over a guy and then goes off to give his speech, real nice. If it were me I would have been at the hospital praying for the poor man I hit.”
Be Nice wrote on September 09, 2006 1:24 PM: “Okay so a Judge made a bad Judgement in turning. A turn in his life he cannot unturn. He would love to. Let this man have peace. “
Joyce Urbom says her husband didn’t think the man would die, that’s why he went on to give his speech, and because he didn’t want to let down the Kiwanis.
A police officer asked him where he wanted to go after the speech — his car had been taken as evidence. He said he wanted to go to his office to preside at a sentencing. When he got off the bench, that’s when he learned the man had died.
The officer took a blood sample, Joyce said, then drove him to meet her at their church, Trinity United Methodist. She was at a meeting for the Young At Heart group.
She asked him where his car was.
“‘I will tell you,’ he said. ‘But let’s get in your car.’ And he sat there and told me what happened. He was in such grief, and disbelief.”
Joyce says her husband prayed for the man. He prayed for his family.
The judge has been listening to the phone interview. Joyce says he wants to talk now, after all.
She hands him the phone.
“It is a nightmare,” he says. He sounds tired.
“It’s daunting. I just feel terrible.”
But the meeting with Mrs. McEntarffer, he says, was “very, very special, very relieving and healing.
“I hope it brought some closure to that family.”
When they opened the door of the mobile home, Mrs. McEntarffer was standing there waiting for them, her arms outstretched.
Laurie McEntarffer is telling the story now.
It’s hard to tell, she says, because details are sketchy, even the time of day the Urboms knocked on her door. It happened after a night of no sleep.
“I’m still so lost in time.”
They sat on her couch and she asked what happened, details of the crash, and he told her. He apologized.
They hugged, and then she and some of her kids and grandkids stood in a circle in her living room with the Urboms, all holding hands.
“Mr. Urbom prayed first. Then we all prayed, then we all finished it off with an ‘Amen.’
“There were many tears. He was just devastated by this. I can put myself in his place, and I know how I would feel.”
Colleen Kenney, Judge visits widow of motorcyclist he hit with car, Lincoln Journal Star (Sept. 11, 2006).
I offered to go with Warren when he entered his guilty plea and signed into a diversion program. He quietly declined. Over the ensuing year, he performed community service teaching illiterate people to read. If you knew Warren, you would not be surprised that he did far more than required.
Six years later, Warren wrote, and the University of Nebraska Press published to wide acclaim, “Called to Justice: The Life of a Federal Trial Judge.”[vi] In that book, Judge Urbom was forthright in discussing the automobile accident.
There is so much more to the book. I highlight Warren’s thoughtful written acknowledgment of his grievous but accidental error because it typifies the man of deep faith, stunning legal talent and unflinching integrity I knew and regarded with such awe over so many years.
Judge Urbom’s life story is deeply embedded in my life’s experience much as precedent is embedded in the common law. Now, at last, I say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant … enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”[vii]
Richard G. Kopf
Senior United States District Judge (Nebraska)
[i] I was nominated to succeed Warren. We sat together in Lincoln.
[ii] The internal discussion with Warren that resulted in his stepping down at 88 was not in any way rancorous, but seared my soul and those of my colleagues.
[iii] Judge Ross once told me that if I wanted an example of how to be a trial judge, I should read the trial transcripts of Warren’s cases.
[iv] His appointment was apolitical. Senator Curtis went looking for the best trial lawyer in Nebraska. That was easily Warren. Senator Hruska signed off. President Nixon agreed. The rest, as they say, is history.
[v] For example, in 1995, Judge Urbom received the prestigious Lewis F. Powell, Jr., award from the American Inns of Court Foundation. This national award is given to honor exemplary service in the areas of legal excellence, professionalism and ethics.
[vi] Warren K. Urbom, forward by former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (and my dear friend), William J. Riley, University of Nebraska Press, 416 pages (October 2012). Consider this too: “In describing the extraordinary professional challenges and life-altering personal tragedies he has encountered, Judge Urbom shows why he is one of the truly great judges of our time—modeling for the legal profession, litigants, and all of humankind the highest standards of professionalism and personal conduct, which he has symbolized throughout his career.”—Deanell Reece Tacha, former dean of Pepperdine University School of Law and former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.