Tag Archives: Nebraska State Bar Association

Constitutional Law Professor G. Michael Fenner

July 14, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Among the diplomas, plaques, commendations, papers, family portraits, artifacts from a life well-traveled, and tons of books that decorate G. Michael Fenner’s office at Creighton University School of Law, one photo in particular triggers a double take. Inscribed “To my dear friend Mike, I simply love spending time with you,” the photo is signed “Clarence.”

The friendship between the law professor and Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Clarence Thomas goes back many years. “His wife (Virginia Lamp of Omaha) was one of my law students and we met him when he was just Clarence Thomas,” Fenner explains. “Every other year here in Omaha I co-teach a seminar on the Supreme Court with Justice Thomas.”

Fenner has focused his professional life on our fundamental freedoms. Along the way he has gained a national reputation as a constitutional scholar—a reputation that has allowed him to get to know jurists such as Thomas as people, allowed him to understand their points of view, and respect their decisions, whether he agrees with them or not.

“My wife, Anne, and I spend about a week with him when he and Virginia return to Nebraska,” Fenner says. “He’s really a very likable guy.”

Teaching the supreme law of the land, which Fenner has done for 44 years at Creighton, can be fraught with pitfalls because even the Constitution inspires division. Should interpretation be guided by what our Founding Fathers meant, or should it be seen as a living document, changing with the spirit of the times? How does Fenner balance the two?

“I teach the cases without teaching a particular preference or point of view,” says Fenner, a past president of the Nebraska State Bar Association. “I occasionally have the students argue a case we’re reading, so they understand both sides.”

Then, in his quiet, thoughtful way, Fenner continues, “Personally, it seems to me the Founding Fathers were smart enough to know that they weren’t smart enough to know everything…they were writing rules that would need interpretation in the future.”

Fenner’s even-handed approach to the most divisive issues facing our judicial system not only wins the respect of colleagues, his students revere him as well.

“The Supreme Court isn’t easy to understand, but he’s able to break it down so you do understand it,” says Tyler Seals, a second-year law student. “He’s objective. He explains what the high court says, not his ideological beliefs.”

A belief in basic human dignity took root early in the professor’s childhood. The eldest of three sons born to a dairyman and his wife, Fenner grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri. His father, George, after whom Fenner is named, had a business membership to the local country club. Whenever the family went to the club for dinner, “My father would walk into the kitchen and talk to the wait staff and cooks. They were the only African Americans there.”

Fenner’s father still looms large, years after his death from Parkinson’s disease. “He was honest and quiet, a lot like those western stars from my childhood.”

It wasn’t Marshall Matt Dillon who inspired Fenner to go into law; it was Gregory Peck. To Kill A Mockingbird had a profound affect on him. After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1966, Fenner obtained his law degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. In fact, the Fenner boys hit the legal trifecta. His brother, U.S. District Court Judge Gary Fenner, presides in Kansas City, while the youngest sibling, Robert, recently retired as chief counsel for a federal agency in Washington, D.C.

Professor Fenner also worked in D.C. as a trial lawyer for the Justice Department, taking the job right after he and Anne married. Following the birth of their daughter, Hilary, now the general counsel for Patagonia outdoor clothing and equipment, the couple decided to move back to the Midwest, where “I’d be able to see my baby instead of commuting,” he says. His son, Ben, was born following the move to Omaha. Ben now works for a law firm in D.C. that represents Native Americans. 

The current vacancy on the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia poses a real challenge, both politically and judicially, Fenner believes. With big cases looming that deal with abortion, freedom of speech, and affirmative action, the possibility of a “no decision” ruling could very well occur with the court split 4-4. “There’s a reason for nine justices,” Fenner says. “There can be no ties.”

The political vitriol regarding any nomination to succeed Justice Scalia dismays Fenner, but he also sees the unfolding confrontation as an inevitable part of history. “There will not be an Obama nominee who gets confirmed, who gets a hearing, or who even gets a handshake,” Fenner intones. “I don’t know who he could put forward to change that.”

But what fodder for discussion in a constitutional law class…


The Law of the Land

June 9, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article originally published in Summer 2015 edition of B2B.

The awards and accolades keep coming Deryl Hamann’s way, but the 82-year-old Omaha attorney has a decisively modest take. “You stay around long enough and they have to recognize you.”

The latest honor was the 2014 Douglas E. Parrott Faith in Action Award from Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. Hamann is grateful and humbled by the recognition, but, he feels he isn’t doing anything extra. In fact, he’s enjoying the slower pace these days.

“I come to the office every day, but I don’t work very hard,” Hamann says from his office high up in the Woodmen of the World building. “Mostly I just ferry my wife around.”

Hamann still has some long-time clients he tends to. And he is always there to offer up advice as needed to the younger attorneys at Baird Holm, the firm he’s been with since 1959.

Yes, the praise is nice and all, but that’s not what drives Hamann. He’s still the Iowa farm boy who worked his way through law school and went on to become one of the state’s most respected experts on banking and corporate law, not to mention the CEO of a large banking organization. Hamann says he is driven by the satisfaction that comes from showing up to work each day and serving his clients.

It’s a work ethic learned on the dusty farmlands of his north-central Iowa youth.

Hamann learned early on that there is no substitute for hard work. If asked about the accolades, you’ll get some pleasant comments. But talk to him about those early years managing the local drive-in north of Fort Dodge, Iowa, or clerking for U.S. District Judge Robert Van Pelt, and you’ll get a sense of what drove Hamann to success.

The combination of work ethic and intelligence led Hamann into the banking business in 1971 with the purchase of a small bank in southern Iowa. That led to him becoming the chairman and chief executive officer of Great Western Bank, which grew to over 100 locations in six states before selling in 2008.

Hamann is also a trustee and past president of the Nebraska State Bar Association; former chairman of the board of trustees at Bellevue University; a director of the University of Nebraska Foundation and chairman of its Investment Committee; and, also, former chairman of the Bethphage Foundation. In 2011, he was designated Corporate Lawyer of the Year in Omaha by Best Lawyers in America.

“Those were pretty busy years,” he says of balancing his career and raising four children, and later, three stepchildren.

Hamann graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1956 as an undergraduate. He received his law degree in 1958, the same year he clerked for Judge Van Pelt, a man who he says had a big impact on him and his career path. “The phrase ‘a gentleman and a scholar’ could have been invented just for him,” Hamann says.

Hamann recalls his first job, cutting cockleburs with a corn knife and helping with the chores around the little farm “a quarter mile down a mud lane just off a gravel road.”

Growing up during the Great Depression taught Hamann the value in helping others. And in treating other people right. “There is great satisfaction in being able to help someone in need, especially when you grow up without much,” he says. “Back then, things were not that lush.”

Times have changed, no doubt. But for Hamann, some things are constant, like the value of lessons one learns early on and, hopefully, never loses sight of.

Deryl Hamman