U.S. District Court Judge Susan richard Nelson ’78 hits the ground running in NFL dispute
To hear Susan Nelson tell it, being in the media spotlight, as she was -during this summer’s National Football League lockout, is an unlikely place for her to be.
“When I was being vetted by officials for both judicial positions,” recalls the former U.S. Magistrate Judge, laughing, “they said, ‘Frankly, you seem like a boring person. You work and go to your children’s ballgames.’ And that was all I did — work, and handle family.”
Nominated by President Obama and sworn in as a judge in U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota in December 2010, after ten years as a U.S. Magistrate Judge, Nelson received the request for an injunction to end the player lockout just four months later. A random computer assignment brought the case to her St. Paul courtroom and put the 58-year-old in headlines nationwide.
Despite Nelson’s demurrals, her professional career has been far from dull. As an attorney with Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, she was part of a team that prosecuted the largest case in Minnesota history: State of Minnesota v. Phillip Morris, the landmark tobacco settlement case. After dozens of appeals, the Robins Kaplan team won the state $7 billion dollars. The 1998 decision is still the world’s fourth largest legal settlement, according to the Public Health Law Center.
How does she handle working on high-visibility cases? “You focus strictly on excellence and the merits of the case,” she notes. “The stress level in the tobacco case was high. So much was on the line. We worked every day for four years. It was an enormous commitment, but I’d do it again — it was the most excellent work I saw a team do. We believed in it. It was easy to work day and night.” Working to make a difference, she says, has been the common denominator of her legal and judicial careers.
Another common denominator is family. Married since 1983 to Tom Nelson, a commercial litigator with Leonard, Street and Deinard, Nelson has found their strong partnership a godsend. “We have a lot of conversations about work. It’s a real blessing to be able to talk to him — except about pending cases,” she says. “And with the whole NFL thing, [since] it was a new experience to get that kind of exposure.” Tom Nelson stepped up his domestic role when the tobacco case preparation forced his wife to live in a hotel for five months, away from the couple’s two young sons.
“Despite all the changes in the world, balancing a -family and this kind of job takes mentoring. You need to talk to people about it,” she says. That support was lacking early in her career. When the Buffalo, New York native entered Pitt Law in 1975, after graduating from Oberlin College, Pitt Law had only one woman on its faculty, Martha Munsch. “I’ve directed my efforts towards promoting women in the law and being a good mentor. I believe in helping women get through it — it can be bumpy! There isn’t a day in the summer that I don’t have kids shadowing me — I have three interns right now,” she points out. “And I always hope someone is doing the same for my boys,” she says of her sons Rob, 26, and Michael, 22.
Nelson has been a longtime supporter of Minnesota Women Lawyers, a statewide non-profit that connects law students with mentors. “It’s an incredibly wonderful organization, with chapters in our law schools. We invite them to our programming,” she notes.
After stints at Reed Smith and Tyler, Cooper & Alcorn in New Haven, Nelson moved to Robins Kaplan in 1984. Minneapolis has been home ever since. “I like living in thriving midwestern cities,” she says, comparing the Twin Cities’ “warm and caring culture” to Pittsburgh. The federal bench beckoned in 2000.
“After the tobacco settlement, I aspired to be a judge,” she admits. “I liked the magistrate judge position in particular. It concerns managing complex litigation, so it was suited to someone who had spent 20 years doing that.”
Tom Hefflefinger, a former U.S. attorney for Minne-sota, says that Judge Nelson’s judicial demeanor is “decisive, yet pleasant. She’s a trial lawyer’s judge — she lets people try their case.”
Despite responsibility for 450 cases at any given time, Nelson says she still enjoys writing opinions. “Beautiful writing is beautiful art. It’s succinct and clear and musical,” she says. Still, she acknowledges that the overload in the federal judiciary is “a big issue.”
“In a private firm, you work this way, so I’m used to it. But long-term, we have to find ways to fund the judiciary better,” she believes. Meanwhile, she thrives under pressure. “This job is just thrilling. I pinch myself every morn-ing. I’m beside myself that it happened, and I love the work.”