A personal look back

This past December brought to mind some of the happiest parts of my life. John Hinderaker’s retirement party accounted for a good share. Working with John turned into a friendship that has changed my life for the better. The party took me back to our professional relationship. We started writing columns and articles together on the side of our law practice at the end of 1991. In his usual style, John had called the editor of the editorial page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and asked for equal space to respond to the endless America: What Went Wrong? syndicated series by Barlett and Steele that the paper was running to bash the Reagan years.

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The editor said he wouldn’t give us equal space, but he would give us the space of an op-ed column. We were off and running. For the next 10 years we wrote numerous columns and articles for newspapers and magazines, all on the side of our litigation law practice. Looking back at this point, I can’t recall how we thought we could get away with it unscathed.

Over Memorial Day weekend in 2002, John invited me to continue our writing partnership at a site he had set up online. The site was Power Line; writing for it turned into the first job I’ve ever loved. I wouldn’t even know what “I love my job” means if it weren’t for John.

I also love all kinds of popular music and really enjoy hearing it live. I don’t know of a better place in the country to hear live music than the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. We attended the Dakota’s annual pre-New Year’s Eve event featuring the Twin Cities’ own New Standards with our kids again this week. We’ve been going to this show for the past five or six years and it was great again this year.

Lowell Pickett is the proprietor of the Dakota. He loves good food and music. The restaurant is a labor of love for him. He has a special relationship with many of the artists who perform there. He is a patient and understanding man of just about everything except violating his prohibition against recording the shows.

The Star Tribune briefly profiled Lowell this past Sunday:

The Twin Cities’ leading impresario has a rare skill set: a proven ear for jazz and a sharp eye for culinary talent. Since he founded the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in 1985, Pickett has played host to pretty much every headline-grabbing jazz musician in the country, and he’s partnered with a select fraternity of game-changing chefs, including Ken Goff and Jack Riebel, as well as the kitchen’s current occupants, chef Derik Moran and pastry chef Katie Elsing.

In 2003, after years in St. Paul’s sleepy Bandana Square, Pickett relocated the Dakota across the river to a center-spotlight address at 10th and Nicollet. Downtown Minneapolis has never been the same.

“I’m constantly impressed and inspired by the talent here, from what’s onstage to what’s coming out of the kitchen,” he told the Star Tribune in 2007. We are, too.

We have had many, many peak experiences listening to music at the Dakota — from Suzy Bogguss to Ronnie Spector to Boz Scaggs to Allen Toussaint to Prince to Dan Penn to Shawn Colvin to John McLaughlin to Jimmy Webb to Hot Tuna to Ann Hampton Callaway to Leon Russell to Manhattan Transfer to Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band to Peter Asher to Israel’s Idan Raichel and the Twin Cities’ gifted Connie Evingson, just to name a few. This year promises to be the Dakota’s best ever.

Thinking about how much enjoyment Lowell has added to my life, I asked him if he would let me get a photo with him while his crew was preparing the house for the second sold-out New Standards show on Wednesday night. He happily obliged.

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When I graduated from law school I went to work as a law clerk for Judge Myron Bright of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Judge Bright maintained his office in Fargo, North Dakota, but put me to work for him on the court’s central staff in St. Louis. Working for Judge Bright was an immersive, full-body experience. He brings you into his life. Over the two years I worked for him, I learned much about law and life.

Judge Bright has kept up with his clerks through reunions at five-year intervals. I missed the last one because I was out of the country. I reconnected with him at a book publication party at the offices of the Stinson Leonard Street law firm in Minneapolis on December 18. Judge Bright’s book is the memoir Goodbye Mike, Hello Judge. The Eighth Circuit Historical Society has set up a page for the book here.

Now here’s the beauty part. Judge Bright was appointed to the bench by Lyndon Johnson in 1968. There is quite a story there — one that Judge Bright tells in the book. When I saw him earlier this month, I told him I thought he was old when I worked for him, which was a while ago. He’s 96 now and he was set to hear cases the next morning in St. Paul, where the court has a second set of courtrooms and chambers. He is the most senior federal judge in the United States, with some 6,600 cases under his belt.

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I most vividly remember one case that is not to be found in any of the books. The court set a special afternoon hearing to entertain a motion brought by the National Labor Relations Board to have a man held in contempt for refusing to comply with the order entered by the court in the case the NLRB had brought against him. The man was from the Iron Range in northern Minnesota; Judge Bright is originally from Eveleth on the Range. On the three-judge panel that heard the motion, Judge Bright took the lead. In the course of a 15-minute hearing, Judge Bright gently talked the elderly gentleman who resisted the NLRB into complying with the court’s order. It was a case study in human understanding and in great power wielded with true mercy.

At his book party last month I asked Judge Bright if he had any words of wisdom I could share. He exclaimed: “Just lucky!”

Well, that goes for me too. Happy new year!

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