Norman Krivosha’s Life in Law
I rarely do stories involving any aspect of law or justice and if I do it’s generally a profile like the following one I did a few years ago for the Jewish Press on Norman Krivosha, who at one time served as chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court. As you might expect from someone who has enjoyed a distinguished career on the bench and as an attorney Krivosha is a thoughtful, well-spoken individual. He’s well aware how fortunate he is to have found a profession and vocation that has engaged him for so long. He’s one of those blessed persons who proves that attitude can be everything. He’s definitely of the glass half-full fraternity.
Norman Krivosha’s Life in Law
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Jewish Press
Norman Krivosha’s life is a classic case of the adage that behind every great man is a woman. The noted attorney and one time Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice and corporate counsel may not have been any of those things if the Detroit, Mich. native had not met a certain woman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when he arrived as a brash but undisciplined undergrad in the early 1950s.
Krivosha came to UNL at the urging of a cousin who taught microbiology there. The professor saw his cousin’s potential. The young Krivosha was bright. He’d done well at a select college prepatory public school in Detroit. He’d shown industry as a top notch sales clerk for the Mary Jane Shoe Store. He’d displayed an avid interest in politics, handing out pamphlets on the street for a cousin running for public office.
Only when Krivosha got to Lincoln — having never been further west than Chicago – he was the proverbial big city boy let loose in the sticks.
“I had to get out a map to see where Nebraska was. I vividly recall walking downtown the first Sunday I was there and I was the only person on the street. It was such a great transition for me coming from Detroit, but a very valuable one.”
Studying was not a priority. The former Helene Sherman changed all that. The studious young woman from a tradition-rich Lincoln family eventually became Mrs. Helene Krivosha, but long before marrying him she got him on track.
“The truth of the matter is had I not met my wife Helene when I did I would probably have retired as the general manager of the Mary Jane Shoe Store in Miami, Fla.” said Krivosha, who with his wife retired to Naples. Fla. three years ago.
“When I got to the university I was not very interested in worrying about studies.
But I met her and I’d go over to the library to take her for coffee and she’d say, ‘Well, we can go at 10 o’clock.’ And I’d say, ‘It’s 7 now — what do I do for three hours?’ She’d say, ‘Bring some books.’ So I started studying. Then I started taking some classes she was in so I could see her during the day. And before I knew it I got a Regent’s Scholarship and I was on my way to law school.”
There would be more mentors in his life. Before any of these guided him, however, his immigrant parents, neither of whom completed high school, stressed the importance of education to their only child. His mother was a homemaker and his father one in a long line of dry cleaners.
“Neither of them were well-educated.” Krivosha said. “Both of them were terribly literate. Going to college in my neighborhood was not a common sort of thing to do but my parents were determined that I should. We always talked about me going.”
The dutiful son attended Wayne University in Detroit but didn’t exactly buckle down. Between going to school by day and working for the post office at night, he said, “I was running with my friends.” That’s when he took up his egghead cousin’s offer to live with him in Lincoln and go to school there.
Krivosha carried his family’s hopes and dreams for a better life and finally aplied himself. With the help of Helene, some veteran lawyers and an ambitious newcomer to the political scene, Krivosha enjoyed a fast ride up the political-legal ladder. He readily acknowledges the aid he received along the way.
“I’m a great believer that nobody gets where they get on their own. That they all have help. Quite frankly, I resent when people seem to want to take claim for having made it ‘on their own.’”
From a macro perspective, he knows the opportunities given him resulted from the sacrifices and generosity of folks, some of whom he’ll never meet. He views his achievements as the return on an investment that others made in him.
“I did what I did because somebody in Scottsbluff, Nebraska got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and milked cows and paid his taxes so I could get a Regent Scholarship to go to law school. That’s what helped me become a lawyer and be successful.”
He believes fate has played a part in it all.
“Things work out the way they’re supposed to,” he said. “I was supposed to go to law school, I was supposed to be a lawyer, and that’s where I wound up.”
Funny thing is, he initially only studied law “because some friends were going to law school and that just seemed like something to do.” At some point law became more than a way to pass the time.
“I did well in law school. I finished high in my class. I started clerking in my second year in law school with a firm I ultimately became senior partner of.”
It was soon apparent he’d found his niche.
“I immediately enjoyed it. For me, law has always been a challenge — the ability to seek to analyze a situation, to design a solution. The practice of law was just something I loved to do. I never got up a single morning in my life not looking forward going to work.”
Past tense notwithstanding, he still practices law. This marks his 50th year in the profession. He cut his legal teeth with twin lawyers Herman and Joe Ginsburg in their Lincoln, Neb. firm. Krivosha had already clerked there three years by the time he finished law school. He became a lawyer with the firm as soon as he was admitted to the bar.
He said Herman Ginsburg “was extremely influential in my career. He was one of the best lawyers in the state if not the country — a fine, wonderful trial lawyer. He taught me a great deal.”
The Ginsburgs operated a general practice.
“In the late ‘50s-early ‘60s in Lincoln, Nebraska lawyers were probably what today would be described as country lawyers,” he said. “That is, we did everything. We did a great deal of trial litigation for other lawyers outstate who did not frequently go to court. We represented corporations, we probated estates, we did adoptions, we did divorces, we did personal injury cases. We did anything that came into the office. Our office was in Lincoln but we really practiced all over the state.”
That heavy, diverse case load made a good training ground.
“I think what it did was it made me a better lawyer and certainly made me a better judge ultimately because I had had all that experience.”
As a comparison of just how different his experience was from young lawyers starting out today, he used his daughter Terri Krivosha-Herring as an example.
“My oldest daughter is a lawyer in Minneapolis. A very fine, wonderful lawyer whose practice is limited to mergers and acquisitions. She’s great in her field but I don’t think lawyers today have the same broad background we used to have.”
Terri’s married to Rabbi Hayim Herring. Krivosha’s younger daughter, Rhonda Hauser, is married to lawyer Adam Hauser. “In our family you must either be a lawyer or marry a lawyer,” Krivosha joked. “If you’re smart you marry a lawyer, if you’re not so smart you become a lawyer.”
The Ginsburgs brought on a third partner, brother-in-law Hyman Rosenberg, before Krivosha became a partner with his name on the window. All the while he honed his legal skills he pursued a parallel interest in politics. His law partner Joe Ginsburg was active in Nebraska Democratic politics for years and became a political mentor.
“He sort of led me into it and it was sort of a natural for me. I’d been involved in Democratic politics all of my life and certainly all of my adult life in Lincoln. I was Lancaster Democratic Party County Chairman for a number of years. And I was state vice chairman. I was an alternate delegate for the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago, although I never did wind up going. I was (Nebraska) campaign manager for Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson’s presidential bid.”
He also managed Clair Callan’s only successful Congressional bid — a rare instance of a Democrat being elected from the Republican stronghold 1st District.
Political engagement was another way Krivosha hoped to make a difference.
“I cared. I believed Democrats were providing the answers to the country’s needs. Being involved in Democratic politics was a way of trying to make things better. I was never interested myself in holding public office but in helping others.”
Krivosha’s political stock in the state grew when he befriended a newcomer to the arena named Jim Exon, a future governor and U.S. senator.
“I nominated him as national committee man at the state Democratic convention in Hastings (in the early ‘60s), and that was really sort of the beginning of his political career,” said Krivosha.
Exon was elected Nebraska governor in ‘71 and asked Krivosha to join his inner circle.
“When he became governor he asked me to come be his general counsel,” Krivosha explained. “I didn’t want to leave the practice. And so I made an agreement with him that I would be his general counsel at no pay and I would come to the capitol every morning, maybe till one-two o’clock, do whatever he needed done, and then I would go downtown and practice law for the rest of the day and evening. I did that for four years.
“And during all that time we (his firm) agreed not to take cases involving the state.”
No conflict of interest that way.
“I had really sort of gotten used to that because in 1969 I was loaned by my firm to be City Attorney of the City of Lincoln, and I did that for 20 months.”
By the time Krivosha’s general counsel duties for the governor ended his next entree into state government presented itself when then-Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul White “unexpectedly resigned” in 1978. Krivosha inquired if Exon would be OK if he submitted his name for the seat, which for the first time was to be appointed rather than elected.
Exon gave his blessing and Krivosha said just to avoid any hint of impropriety he didn’t speak with the governor from that moment until after he got the nod.
“There were 16 of us whose names were submitted and Jim (Exon) had an incredible way of advising you you’d been appointed. He sent a letter to everyone who had not been appointed, but you, telling them who had been appointed and thanking them for applying,” Krivosha recounted.
“I was in Judge Dale Fahrnbruch’s court on a Friday morning about to start trying a lawsuit before him. He and I had both been candidates for chief justice. He was opening his mail on the bench as we were getting ready to begin the case and he stopped suddenly and said, ‘I think we better take a recess.’ He called me into his chambers and said, ‘I suppose you’re not going to want to try your case today.’”
Krivosha didn’t know what the judge meant. It was left up to Fahrnbruch to inform him he was the state’s new chief justice. “That’s how I found put,” Krivosha said. He made it to the highest judicial seat without prior bench experience.
“Not unheard of,” he said. “You have to also remember I was the first appointed chief justice (of Nebraska). Up until then all the members of the Court had been elected and we had just recently changed to the merit selection system. It’s probably more common to have people come from the District Court to the Supreme Court, but not unheard of. There were people elected before and certainly there were people appointed later who had not been judges before.”
Not only was he serving his first judgeship on the state supreme court, he was perhaps the youngest member of that august and senior body.
“Some of the members of the court called me ‘Sonny,’ which they were entitled to. I mean, I was 44 years-old and some of them were in their 60s. But they were wonderful. It was a great experience.”
He’d argued many cases before the Nebraska Supreme Court prior to his appointment. After leaving the bench he argued cases before the court again, but only after all the members he’d served with had retired. from the court. While admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court he never argued before it.
He said his becoming chief justice was dependent on three key factors.
“You have to work very hard in law school and graduate at or near the top of your class. You then have to spend the next 20 years as a lawyer gaining a reputation of being a fine lawyer. And you need to become a close friend of a governor. And if you can’t do all of them, you must at least do the last one.
“The fact of the matter is I guess I can honestly say I did all three. I graduated well in my class, I think I had a reputation of being a good lawyer, and I was a close friend of Jim Exon.”
What made he and Exon click?
“We were both committed Democrats. We both felt the same way about things. I think we got along so well because we shared the same views about family, about ethics, about integrity,” Krivosha said. “He would never ask you to do anything you’d be embarrassed to tell your mother…He always did what was ethically and morally right even if it wasn’t politically right, but for him it always turned out to be politically right.
“Jim Exon in my view was one of the world‘s greatest public figures.”
Krivosha was Exon’s last appointment before he left to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1979. For Krivosha, serving on the bench was another facet of a rich legal career.
“I’ve been a practitioner, I’ve been a trial lawyer, I’ve taught, I’ve been a judge and I’ve been a corporate counsel. All of it was satisfying. I enjoyed very much the collegiality with my colleagues on the bench. I disagreed with them occasionally but nonetheless had a very close relationship with them.”
A fellow Nebraska Supreme Court justice, Judge Nick Caporale, was a classmate of Krivosha’s at UNL and remains a good friend.
Being a judge suited Krivosha.
“I enjoyed looking at the cases, trying to conclude an appropriate legal answer, but even more than that I guess as executive head of the judicial branch of government I enjoyed the administration of the court system.”
He introduced some innovations.
“We made some changes along the way,” he said, “many of which still exist today. We did away with the municipal courts in Lincoln and Omaha — merging them into the County Court system. This was a more efficient way at a financial savings. We instituted type-written briefs in the Supreme Court — doing away with printing the briefs — which certainly was a savings to litigants.”
He also instituted measures to ease the volume of cases heard.
“There was no Court of Appeals then, so the Supreme Court was a court as a matter of right. You could appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court from Small Claims Court and we had to take the case,” he said. “So we appointed two district judges and we sat in divisions of five instead of a court of seven, which the statute allowed, in an effort to try to cut down the number of cases and to handle the volume in a more expeditious way.”
While presiding on the bench he wrote more than 600 opinions, meaning he decided far too many cases to single out just a few. Besides, he said, “once I finished a case I finished it. It’s done, it’s done. I didn’t have any second thoughts once I decided a case.”
He does take satisfaction, however, in knowing some of his dissents ultimately became the law. He was the lone dissenter when the court ruled a landowner with a ranch bisecting two states could not transfer water from Nebraska to Colorado to feed his cattle.
“I dissented on the basis it interfered with interstate commerce — that he had a perfect right to do that — and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. It was reversed based on my dissent”
He said it’s unusual the highest court in the land opted to hear this water rights case in the first place since the Nebraska Supreme Court is usually the last word.
He served eight years as Chief Justice, stepping down in 1987.
“I did not leave because of any unhappiness. I delighted in being Chief Justice. I was 53 years old, about to turn 54, and somebody made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Bankers Life Nebraska in Lincoln hired him as senior vice president, administration, and chief counsel and when the company became Ameritas Life Insurance Company he was executive vice president, secretary and corporate general counsel. He later worked as general counsel for Kutak Rock.
He retired a couple years ago.
Reviewing his long legal career is not something that occupies much of his time.
“It’s not my style to look back,” he said.
Still, he said, “I’ve been fortunate enough to do almost everything a lawyer can do.” All his years trying and hearing cases did not sour him on the system but rather reaffirmed his faith in it.
“I’m just more convinced it’s as good a system as I always believed it to be. I believe that courts by and large do a good job. There are exceptions. The law is an art, it is not a science, and therefore the answer you get depends on the question you see. The job of the lawyer, for instance, is not to convince the court what the law is but to convince the court what the question is. Once that happens the answer becomes obvious.”
These days he does a bit of arbitration work and sometimes litigates cases. Mostly, though, he serves as an expert witness in insurance fraud suits. His keen political mind is attuned to the presidential race. He reads The New York Times and watches the Sunday public affairs programs. Barack Obama’s chances excite him.
“Obviously as a Democrat I’m a great believer that we need to move in a different direction,” he said.
Is he ever tempted to return to the bench?
“No…Remember, I never look back.”