Omaha attorney Steve Grasz sat watching TV in a conference room at the law firm of Husch Blackwell.
Passionate about Husker basketball, he attends most of the home games and rarely misses a televised game.
On this particular December day, he was joined by his wife and daughter.
It was around 3:30 p.m. Kind of early to be watching TV on a Tuesday afternoon. The bottom of the screen listed the score at 10 to 2. The law firm’s managing partner grabbed a seat next to Steve. Everyone was excited and a bit tense.
Seventeen minutes later, the tide had turned—it was 24 to 31. A few more attorneys slipped into the back of the room and were pacing nervously. Watching a basketball game was usually more fun than this. Perhaps the mood would have been more jovial if there actually was a Husker game on that day. But the TV wasn’t turned to ESPN.
Grasz and his group were watching live C-SPAN coverage of the U.S. Senate voting on whether to confirm his appointment to serve as a federal judge on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Twenty-two minutes into the confirmation session and this battle royal was all tied up: 44 “Yes” votes to confirm, 44 “No” votes to deny confirmation.
(Sometimes C-SPAN can be just as exciting as ESPN….)
A few months earlier, Nebraska Sens. Deb Fischer and Ben Sasse had recommended Grasz to President Donald Trump for this position. Trump promptly nominated the native Nebraskan and University of Nebraska College of Law graduate.
Judicial nominees to U.S. circuit courts typically encounter roadblocks from foes of all shapes and sizes—especially Trump nominees—and after intense scrutiny, the American Bar Association deemed Grasz “not qualified” for the position. The ABA cited “temperament issues…lack of open-mindedness” and declared that the nominee’s “bias…colored his ability to judge fairly.”
Sen. Sasse rejects the ABA assessment: “I’ve long known and respected Steve’s dedicated service to our state and to many nonprofit organizations working in our communities. As I worked with Steve throughout the judiciary process, my colleagues met a man with the characteristics you’d expect from your neighbor here in Nebraska.”
The former Nebraska Chief Deputy Attorney General faced an uphill battle. This included a confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which the Huffington Post called “awkward” and “brutal.”
At this point in the process, Grasz was receiving bipartisan support from the likes of the former Democratic governor and senator Ben Nelson and President Barack Obama’s Nebraska appointee for U.S. attorney, Deb Gilg. If you weren’t watching the live C-SPAN coverage (which you probably weren’t) you missed Sen. Fischer’s impassioned comments to the members of the Senate just prior to the roll call.
In conversation with Sen. Fischer, she tells Omaha Magazine, “These things become so partisan, and this is a case where we have a good candidate. He is a good solid man. Very humble.”
The final vote was cast by Sen. Daniel Scott Sullivan of Alaska at 3:59 p.m. Grasz was victorious by a score of 50 to 48. The vote was along party lines with Republican senators all voting “yay” and Democrat senators voting “nay.” (Sens. John McCain and Thad Cochran abstained from voting due to illnesses.)
Sen. Fischer adds: “It was quite evident early on in the interview process that Steve’s intellect and temperament matched up very well with all of the recommendations we had received on him. The 8th Circuit Court examines the big constitutional questions and with his focus on the Constitution and his focus on the rule of law…he’s exactly the type of person we want to be on that court. I’m very pleased that he is going to be serving not just Nebraskans, but the American people.”
So how did Judge Grasz celebrate after being granted a lifetime appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals? Not by going to Disneyland…
“We went out to dinner, and I love basketball, so we went to a high school basketball game,” he says. That night, in the parking lot of Concordia High School, just prior to tip-off, Steve received a congratulatory phone call from White House counsel and assistant to the president Don McGahn. Over the next few days, he received similar calls from numerous Washington insiders—including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
(And in case you’re wondering, the Concordia Mustangs whooped the Scotus Shamrocks by a score of 57 to 48.)
“I have complete trust in Steve,” Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert tells Omaha Magazine. “I’ve known him for quite a long time. He served as my primary attorney for all of my political matters since I first ran for the legislature back in 2006. He’s always been very professional and very successful in advocating for me. He is very thorough, he is very fair, he is even-tempered and very open-minded. I know he will do a great job.”
“My permanent office will be downtown,” Grasz explains about his new vocation. “The 8th Circuit Court takes up most of the fourth floor in the Hruska Federal Courthouse. There is a courtroom and additional offices to accommodate three circuit judges when they’re in Omaha. I will also be traveling throughout the year, and I’ll have offices in St. Louis and St. Paul.”
Steve grew up in the Nebraska panhandle town of Chappell. Back then the town had a population of 1,280. As a youngster he was active in 4-H and showed steers and lambs. In high school he played basketball and ran track. He was a state officer for Future Farmers of America. His graduating class had a total of 33 students. Chappell now has a population 979.
“My dad was a farmer, and my mom lived on the farm for quite a while after my dad died. She’s very hard-working,” Grasz says.
Sen. Sasse is quite familiar with Grasz’ upbringing: “As many Nebraskans do, he grew up walking beans and raising livestock on the family farm. Now, on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, Steve gets the opportunity to continue to build on his career of public service and adherence to the rule of law that should make Nebraskans—across the state and the political aisle—proud.”
Ironically, Steve’s hometown has produced a handful of notable personalities including Virginia D. Smith, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years. Grasz was an intern, and after graduating from UNL, worked as a legislative assistant in Rep. Smith’s office.
Dick Cabela, co-founder of outdoor outfitter Cabela’s, also called Chappell his home. “My mom was one of the very first people ever to work for Cabela’s—back when it was a two-person operation,” Steve recalls. “She would type envelopes for a penny apiece.” Steve’s mother now resides in Oklahoma, as do his brother and sister.
“When we sold our family farm, I was able to keep the creek bottom and we’ve got about 53 acres and a cabin there that my great-grandfather built so we still go out there and enjoy the farm. I’ve got aunts and uncles that still live in the area.”
Throughout his professional career, Grasz has authored numerous articles and letters to newspaper opinion pages to expound upon his political views. When asked about the practicality of using Twitter to get his message out there, he explains that he “had a Twitter account, which is closed now. I think I tweeted a total of eight or nine times and they were all talking about Nebraska basketball.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts is optimistic: “I have always enjoyed working with Steve, even when we don’t agree.
He is a man of the highest integrity. Steve is also one of the best constitutional lawyers in the state. We are fortunate to have his service on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Who were Grasz’ major influences? He mentions his parents, family, a handful of teachers, and Attorney General Don Stenberg. He and his wife have four children who range in age from 19 to 26. “The youngest is a freshman at a liberal arts university in Tennessee, so my wife and I have been empty-nesters as of August.”
Grasz served as Chief Deputy Attorney General and worked with Attorney General Stenberg for 11 years. Grasz then joined the Omaha office of Husch Blackwell in 2002. In 2013 he was named senior partner.
As an attorney, Grasz has graced numerous Best Lawyers of America lists for more than a decade.
We met for an interview on a frigid Friday, a few days before his swearing-in ceremony. He greeted me in the lobby of Husch Blackwell. I was wearing a suit.
“I should have told you it was casual day, ” he says after giving me a quick look-over.
Steve had on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeve, button-down Husker shirt. The Huskers had a basketball game against Delaware State that night in Lincoln. Tipoff was at 7 p.m.
A few hours after our interview, the Huskers won by a score of 85 to 68. Grasz was in the audience cheering for the victorious Nebraska team.
This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.