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March 2014 , Page 59 

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Book Review: Called to Justice: The Life of a Federal Trial Judge

By David McKnight

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Called to Justice: The Life of a Federal Trial Judge

By Warren K. Urbom
University of Nebraska Press (2012)

“One of the most well-respected judges in the country,” “a pillar of integrity,” and “the best federal judge we have had in anyone’s memory” is the way Judge Warren K. Urbom has been described by lawyers appearing before him. He has presided over the Wounded Knee trials, the Progressive Farmers Association trial, trials involving U.S. senators, professional athletes, and Barney (yes, the six foot purple dinosaur). Judge Urbom lets us in on the life of this federal trial judge: balancing life and career while attempting to dispense justice to all parties appearing before him.

Before serving his country as a federal judge, he served his country in the military during World War II. Thereafter, he attended divinity school on the G.I. Bill but instead opted for law school. In making the switch he committed his professional life to the “ministry of justice,” vowing that he would search for, discover, and further justice for every person whom he could touch. He candidly shares not only his successes (as do most autobiographers) but also his disappointments, from which we learn even more. He lost his left eye at the age of three, grew up during the Great Depression, caused an automobile accident in which a man died, and lost his “perfect wife” Joyce to cancer, yet repeatedly describes himself as having “been lucky forever.”

Judge Urbom was a trial lawyer for 17 years before taking the bench. Working his way up from municipal court cases to complex jury trials, he tried over 200 cases in private practice. “A person learns to try cases by trying cases,” he opines. He offers succinct point-driven tales of the ups and downs of trial practice and expresses a great understanding of trial lawyers that I will repeat verbatim.

It is no secret that I have a high regard for lawyers, particularly trial lawyers. It arises out of long experience with them. I see them in their special role — to stand beside the victim of child abuse, the child abuser, the drug dealer, the smut peddler, the consumer, the powerful, the powerless, the insolent, the shiftless, the helpless, the poor, the rich, the injured, the wrongdoer, the innocent, the guilty, the government, the governed — and not to leave that place until the search for equal justice has run its course. That’s the charge for the trial lawyer.

From the bench, Judge Urbom pulls back the curtain and lets us see the thought process of an insightful federal judge dealing with difficult decisions on a docket swelling at times to over 600 cases. He devotes sections of his book to big picture issues such as abortion, death penalty, and the federal sentencing guidelines. But he also allows us to watch his decision-making process as he struggles with specific trial-related issues. Should he require Native Americans to stand against their will when he enters the courtroom? He does not, but later they rise voluntarily out of respect for him. Should he, a man of devout faith, allow Native Americans to take their oath on a ceremonial pipe rather than the Bible? He does, because the solemnity of the oath is primarily for the witness and not the court or jury. He changes the oath witnesses take in his courtroom from swearing to tell the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” to swearing “to tell the truth and nothing but the truth” because no witness knows the whole truth about anything. He even shares the diary entries he kept daily during a lengthy trial so that we are allowed to observe the life of a federal trial judge. These are just a few of the examples that demonstrate an intelligent, thoughtful, gifted jurist who cares about people and justice. As I close the book, I cannot help but think that I have just witnessed a man of faith who loves his family and his profession — a minister of justice.

About the Reviewer 

David McKnight is a Life Member of NACDL and a criminal defense attorney in Birmingham, Ala.

The opinions expressed in reviews are those of the reviewers and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of NACDL.  

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