Justice Kenneth C. Stephan, who will go down in history as one of the finest judges ever to sit on the Nebraska Supreme Court, will retire on July 1, 2015–he will be sorely missed

KenWhat can I say? Ken Stephan, who it seems I have known forever, will step down as a Justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court on July 1, 2015, after 18 years of service.  That will be a sad day for Nebraska’s judiciary.

Ken started law school two classes before me, the war intervened, and Ken graduated with high distinction from the University of Nebraska law school one year after I did and upon his return from a tour of service “in country.” He was known in the law college as one of the smartest students ever to have attended the school were Roscoe Pound once served as Dean.

Graduating with high distinction, it is a gross understatement to call him brilliant. But that is not what distinguishes Ken the most. Throughout his career as a law student, distinguished trial lawyer and while serving the Nebraska Supreme Court, Ken was and is simply a nice and normal guy despite the fact that his intellect has the power of a nuclear reactor.

Ken is married to Sharon. She is smart as whip and recently retired from a senior position in the University of Nebraska system. She is also my former law partner Ed’s niece and Judge Don Ross’ daughter. Despite the fact that Ken was a Democrat and Judge Ross was as Republican as a Republican can be, Judge Ross loved Ken like a son. How do I know this?

When Judge Ross called me near the end of his life to discuss what the court would do when the judge passed, he told me Ken was the “go to guy.” Quietly, and without fanfare, Ken cared for Judge and Mrs Ross into their old and infirm age, doing all the things that a son would be expected to do for his father and mother. And when Judge Ross dictated to me how he wanted his memorial service at the court to be conducted, it was Ken that I was told to communicate with regarding the judge’s wishes.

Ken’s list of accomplishments while serving the Nebraska Supreme Court are many. Here are a few:

Ken consistently ranked among the highest of the Justices in the every-other-year evaluation conducted by the Nebraska Bar Association. Indeed, the last evaluation showed Ken had a lawyer approval rating higher than any other Justice. An astounding 91.5% of the Nebraska lawyers who responded  advised that Judge Ken should be retained in office. In particular, the lawyers thought Ken had the best legal ability, they thought he was the top writer and they believed he had the best judicial temperament.

Member, Board of Directors, Nebraska Lawyers Trust Account Foundation, 1997-present

Supreme Court Liaison, NSBA Executive Council, 1997-1998

Supreme Court Liaison, Nebraska State Bar Commission, 1997-present

Supreme Court Liaison, Commission on Unauthorized Practice of Law, 2008-present

Member, Supreme Court Technology Committee, 1999-2012

Member, NSC/NSBA Joint Committee on Unauthorized Practice of Law, 2002-2007

Ex officio member, Minority Justice Committee, 2012-present

Chair, Mandatory Continuing Education Commission, 2009-present

Robert Van Pelt American Inn of Court
–Alumni Member, 2013-present
–Inn Administrator, 2008-2013
–Master of the Bench, 1999-2007
–Member, Executive Committee, 2003-2013
–Recipient, Warren K. Urbom Mentor Award, 2003

Judicial Fellow, American College of Trial Lawyers, 1997-present

Fellow, Nebraska State Bar Foundation, 1997-present

I asked Magistrate Judge Cheryl Zwart to write something about Ken. She was one of Ken’s law partners, and she knows him as well as anyone. This is what Judge Zwart wrote:

Some people make a difference because of what they do; some for who they are. But through both his public service and the depth and grace of his character, Judge Kenneth Stephan has made a positive difference, in matters both great and small, for over 40 years.

Judge Stephan’s accomplishments as a jurist and lawyer are well-known and will be followed and lauded for years to come. As such, I will not comment on that legacy because, in an already published way, it speaks for itself.

What does not speak for itself, and what you will never hear him say, is who he is. I first met Ken Stephan in January of 1986. He was a hiring partner for Knudsen, Berkheimer, Richardson, and Endacott; I was a farm kid from South Dakota wearing my first business suit. As he peered at my resume from across the table, I wondered what he was thinking. And with the perfect judicial decorum that served Nebraska’s Supreme Court years later, his words and expression disclosed nothing during the interview.

Thank goodness he hired me. As my employer and then partner in the practice of law for over ten years, Judge Stephan was and remains a mentor, professional role model, and friend.

In the mid-1980s, a time when women were not common in the practice, Judge Stephan was truly gender neutral. Praise and constructive criticism were doled out honestly, directly, and equally to all who worked for him and on every project. When research yielded an unexpected (and unwelcome) answer, he expected a thorough explanation, but he listened with an open mind. He was genuinely thankful for hard work done by anyone, attorneys and staff alike. And he challenged those who did not show equality and respect to others.

Judge Stephan enjoyed the law; he hated time sheets. He enjoyed one-on-one discussions; he did not like meetings. As a practicing lawyer, his door was always open and his mind was never closed. He would candidly discuss legal issues, and when presented with a difficult ethical question, he always defaulted to the “straight and narrow.” Which also described the files laying on his desk. Without fail, documents under his review were neatly collated, paper-clipped, and laid out in rows on his desk. To this day, I remain in awe.

In office meetings, his words always meant something because he spoke only when he needed to. And he sighed when others (including me) should have quit talking, having little patience for beating a dead horse. After attentively and openly listening to everyone’s perspective, he welcomed (and sometimes leapt at) the chance to finally vote on a topic and move on.

While his devotion to the law is unparalleled, Judge Stephan’s passion has always been his family. This otherwise reserved man lights up when he discusses the accomplishments and lives of his wife and children. He also lights up around kids. He has eaten many a Zwart-sold Girl Scout cookie, often chatting with my daughters during their “sales presentations.” He made them feel special and welcome.

Such kindness has a ripple-effect that spans generations. About seven years ago, my daughter Erin, then 25-years-old and a brand new manager for Walt Disney World, was assigned to a very special task—driving Roy Disney on a day-long, golf-cart tour through the Magic Kingdom to view and explain its new attractions. When I asked if she was nervous, she simply responded, “No. Judge Stephan, a Nebraska Supreme Court Judge, has talked to me since I was little. I’ll just be myself.” With that confidence, her time with Roy went great.

Over 20 years ago, Judge Stephan told me that when he retires, he will leave the law behind, buy a bait shop, and go fishing whenever he wants. After decades of being an exemplary lawyer, judge, friend, and role model, he has more than earned his “Gone Fishing” sign. To him I say, “Enjoy!”

For reasons that have never been clear to me, Ken always called me “Richard” rather than the far more common “Rich” (or the even more common “asshole”). Coming from Ken, “Richard” always seemed just right–it made me proud. If utter brilliance coupled with supreme decency counts for something, Kenneth has no equal in the pantheon of great Nebraska jurists.



5 responses

  1. When i was on the Inns of Court other Inns were amazed at the string of years the Lincoln Inn had been honored as one of the best in the Country. I was asked a few times how we did that and i didnt exactly know the reason at first. Then after working with Judge Stephan, i realized why. We had Judge Stephan as our administrator. So from then on I answered simply. “We have Judge Stephan”.
    The only time i saw Judge Stephan moved off his even judicial temperament was when we discussed fishing.
    Hope Judge Stephan has many days of sitting at a quiet lake ahead of him.

  2. So, when do we get to write your tribute? You’ve earned it. It’s time for you to take Joan for a cruise on the Danube, a gondola ride in Venice, have a haggis in Edinburgh and breakfast in Belize, kiss the Blarney Stone, and almost over-stay your welcome Down Under.

    If you want to stay active and need a little traveling cash, I’m sure UNL can always use an adjunct professor.

  3. Anonymous,

    Anyone who would write a tribute to me is not fit to do so.

    More seriously, I have told my court: (1) I will take a full load until 70, and since my health is improving I am going back on the case assignment wheel July 1, 2015; and (2) I will fully retire at 75 in just over six years.

    All the best.


  4. Two well written – and sincere – comments by two lawyers with personal knowledge of Justice Stephan.

    I would only add that Nebraska has been well served in state and federal court by a long line of good to great jurists; starting with Commissioner Roscoe Pound. I would attribute some of Nebraska’s success to its education system with the last three years years usually at UNL or Creighton.

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