The first female judge to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, the Honorable Laurie Smith Camp, was known throughout her legal career as a trailblazer, an independent thinker, and a fair and thoughtful arbiter of justice. From the very beginning of her legal training, Smith Camp walked her own path. After Title IX was enacted, the University of Nebraska College of Law was part of just the second law school class to admit a significant number of women. Despite this, her class of 1977 was still largely composed of men. Focused and quiet, Smith Camp was driven by her genuine interest in the law and was largely unconcerned with grades or class rank. But Smith Camp’s brilliance allowed her to absorb difficult legal concepts with ease, and she soon ascended to the top of her class and became the Editor-in-Chief of the Nebraska Law Review. In the words of her law school classmate and longtime friend Deborah Gilg, Smith Camp “just had that gift.”
Smith Camp’s legacy of forging a path for women in the law began soon after graduating from law school. She served as general counsel to the Nebraska Department of Corrections and, prior to her appointment to the federal bench, served as the first female Deputy Attorney General in Nebraska. President George W. Bush appointed her to the bench in 2001, and she was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. Smith Camp served as Chief Judge of the District of Nebraska from December 2011 to November 2018. She took senior status just a month later—in December 2018. She maintained an active caseload and continued to hear cases until her untimely death in September 2020.
Throughout her tenure as a federal judge, Smith Camp was known and deeply respected as an independent thinker who rendered fair, measured, and consistent rulings on the matters that came before her. She would also focus in on the core issues she needed counsel to address. Colleagues and practitioners alike recall that Smith Camp was always well-prepared, attentive, and respectful in her courtroom, and she demanded the same from the lawyers who appeared before her. The Honorable Michael D. Nelson worked closely with Smith Camp as Nebraska’s Criminal Justice Act panel representative before becoming a United States Magistrate Judge for the District of Nebraska. He described Smith Camp as “approachable but with an aura of authority,” a combination he described as “rare” and “tough to pull off.”
Over the course of her judgeship, Smith Camp issued numerous decisions that were significant and impactful. Some of her most noteworthy decisions include: blocking a Nebraska bill that would have required mental health screenings for women seeking abortions, voiding parts of a city ordinance barring landlords from renting to illegal aliens and finding an employer’s exclusion of prescription contraception from healthcare coverage constituted sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. Smith Camp was also one of the first district judges within the Eighth Circuit to grant a sentence reduction under the compassionate release statute. The defendant had been sentenced under a now-obsolete sentencing scheme imposing harsh mandatory minimums sentences for multiple § 924(c) offenses.
Beyond her judicial track record, Smith Camp was a dedicated advocate for women, indigenous populations, and other historically marginalized groups. A true champion of women’s rights, Smith Camp dedicated her life’s work to promoting gender equality. She once delivered a TEDxOmaha Talk discussing how “two different codes of ethics applied disproportionately by the two sexes” impacts the gender achievement gap that still persists today. Smith Camp recognized and lauded women for lifting each other up and encouraged women to “get in touch with their inner wolf,” a reference to the “The Law of the Jungle” code of ethics she found was practiced overwhelmingly by men.
Smith Camp was also passionate about Native American history and rights. She was instrumental in organizing a historical display at the Roman L. Hruska Federal Courthouse in Omaha commemorating the trial of Chief Standing Bear, chief of the northeast Nebraska Ponca tribe and the first Indian recognized as a person under federal law. Smith Camp also participated in many Chief Standing Bear events, including the unveiling of a statue in Statutory Hall at the U.S. Capitol, where she joined United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and others to celebrate the legacy and legend of Chief Standing Bear.
Smith Camp was an acquaintance and admirer of her fellow trailblazing judicial colleague, United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, in Smith Camp’s words, “embodied the concept of justice.” In 2013, Smith Camp and Ginsburg exchanged gay wedding scripts and both proudly conducted gay weddings when the concept was still novel and controversial. Smith Camp arranged for the late Justice Ginsburg to speak in Omaha at the 2020 Eighth Circuit Judicial Conference in celebration of the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment and related themes of diversity and inclusion, though the conference was ultimately canceled due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Just days before Smith Camp’s passing, she recorded her final remarks in remembrance of Justice Ginsburg and her legacy. The two trailblazing women died within days of each other, and when covering Smith Camp’s passing, Nebraska media outlets often referred to Smith Camp as “the RBG of Nebraska.” Smith Camp’s longtime friend and colleague Gilg describes her as “a glass ceiling breaker in Nebraska in her own, very elegant and quiet way.”
Off the bench, Smith Camp had no problem taking off the proverbial robe and having a good time. She was part of a small social group of lawyers and judges, including Gilg, who dubbed their circle the “whine” and cheese group. The group met every other month to talk about family and travels, vent frustrations, and chuckle about the foibles of life. An eternal student and lifelong learner, Smith Camp loved history. She and three business partners led the redevelopment of Lincoln’s historic Haymarket District. She proudly worked to preserve and maintain the historic home she owned in a notable Omaha neighborhood, where she delighted in hosting gatherings for friends and family. Smith Camp also loved Broadway, literature, the arts, and gardening, and was a devoted yogi. She was deeply devoted to her family, who loved her dearly, and in her passing she leaves behind a daughter, who is an actuary, and a son, who is a lawyer.
In recalling her dear friend and colleague’s legacy, Gilg described Smith Camp as “a very authentic person, sweet and kind” and commented “all the great things people say about her are true.” Judge Nelson echoes that sentiment, stating Smith Camp “was an amazing person, colleague, woman, and judge” who impacted everyone she met and had a special way of uniquely touching each of her friends, family members, and colleagues. A true pioneer for women in the legal profession, an advocate for equal rights, lover of history, and dedicated family member and friend, Judge Laurie Smith Camp will be sorely missed. Her legacy and the impact of her work on the lives of others, however, will live on for generations to come.
Abstract: The first female judge to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska, The Honorable Laurie Smith Camp was known throughout her career as a trailblazer, a fair and thoughtful judge, an advocate for equal rights, and a devoted family member and friend. The news of her unexpected yet peaceful death gives cause to stop and reflect on the remarkable life she lived and the legacy she leaves behind.