In our beautiful courthouse in Omaha, we celebrated Judge Lyle Strom’s 90th birthday yesterday. Judge Strom continues to try civil and criminal cases. One of his goals is to try a jury case when reaches the century mark.
Lyle is beloved and respected by all. He was one of the most highly regarded civil trial lawyers in Nebraska before becoming a district judge as he neared his 60th birthday. He mentored Chief Judge Bill Riley of the Eighth Circuit when the two were law partners. He served as President of the Nebraska Bar Association at the same time as he was Chief Judge of our court. To my way of thinking, Lyle remains one of the best trial judges in the nation.
Lyle has always called them as saw them. Despite the fact that Strom was a conservative Republican when nominated, speaking the truth meant taking on the “crack” cocaine laws with a vengeance.
In a 1993 case, Judge Strom ruled that crack cocaine penalties disproportionately affect African-American defendants, holding that blacks are “being treated unfairly in receiving substantially longer sentences than caucasian males who traditionally deal in powder cocaine, and this disparity simply is not justified by the evidence.” He used this disparity to depart downward and impose 20 year sentences on two black defendants, instead of the 30 years otherwise required by the Guidelines.
Judge Strom was the first federal judge to cite racial disparity as the grounds for a downward departure. He also went to Congress to testify in favor of lowering crack penalties (as recommended by an amendment proposed by the Sentencing Commission). He told Congress, “We have an opportunity to resolve an unfair and unjust disparity in our sentencing system.”
Congress rejected the Commission’s amendment and the Eighth Circuit reversed his ruling, ordering Judge Strom to resentence the defendants according to the Guidelines. At the resentencing, one of the defendants, Delano Maxwell asked, “You can’t depart downward? I don’t understand that. I really don’t. For two hundred years, a judge has been able to use his discretion in sentencing. How can you justify not giving me a chance?” Judge Strom promised to continue to work to change the law. He told each of these defendants, “I know it’s no justification or solace to you, but I am serious when I say this is an outrageous sentence, and I apologize to you on behalf of the United States Government.”
By the way, if you ever need advice on single malt scotch, Lyle is the man to see.