In this highly personal memoir, Judge Warren K. Urbom tells the story of his evolution from a rural Nebraska farm boy to a distinguished and respected federal trial judge. Judge Urbom catalogues in careful detail memories that are both mundane and momentous—opening for the reader a comprehensive view of his humble beginnings during the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains, his path to—and then away from—the Methodist ministry, his confirmation as a federal district court judge, and his experiences over more than four decades on the bench. In this surprisingly candid book, Judge Urbom tells a story that is as much about love, family, and morality as it is about the cause of justice to which he has dedicated much of his professional life.
Judge Urbom is perhaps best known for presiding, early in his judicial career, over a series of the criminal trials arising from the infamous armed standoff between members of the American Indian Movement and federal officials in the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in western South Dakota in 1973. This memoir recounts those trials, as well as the public attention and media drama that surrounded the proceedings. Judge Urbom also opens up about his own personal struggles to do justice in those cases, revealing for example how he sometimes struggled to balance his duty to uphold the laws of the United States with his increasing awareness that many of those laws, as they relate to American Indians, are based on a false and, as he describes it, “arrogant assumption of the ignorance and savagery of Indians.” All along Judge Urbom thinks critically about the proper role of law and judges in society. He resolved the particular challenges of the Wounded Knee cases by an emphasis on the importance of process—providing a fair forum for the Indians’ arguments to be heard—and a respect for the restricted role [End Page 207] of the trial courts in the federal judicial system—bound to uphold the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court. The issues presented in those and other cases retold in this memoir will challenge the reader with important and provocative questions.
In addition to the many detailed case histories, this book weaves together numerous personal anecdotes in an almost stream-of-consciousness, journal-like style. On just one sample page, discussing his days in military service, Judge Urbom takes the reader through the (1) advancing science of glass eye design, (2) four rules he learned from a friend about how to drink beer, (3) his experience on a military bowling team, and (4) how he learned to ski just before his separation from the army. Although some of the details might risk tedium at times, this style ultimately becomes part of the book’s charm, and the reader is rewarded with a series of several poignant personal gems. For example, Judge Urbom recounts the charming story of how, after he received a D in penmanship in his elementary school years, his father—a quiet man with “his eighth grade education and his big, dirt-farmer hands”—sat down and coached his son through a more careful writing of his own name so that he might appreciate “the beauty of words and how to make them look beautiful.” The love story between Judge Urbom and his wife is also particularly memorable, with Judge Urbom taking the reader from the moment he first knew that he would marry her (“on that particular morning at the particular place her simple walking along the sidewalk made me wilt”) to her final breath after a long battle with cancer (saying simply “Warren” before she passed).
Readers interested in legal history and the inner workings of the legal system will find much of interest in this book, but it is a fascinating read for a broader audience, as well. Judge Urbom described himself, at the time he became a federal judge, as “an extraordinarily lucky, incredibly...