In 1978, 15 months out of law school, James R. Dowd argued his first case in a court of law. Edward L. Dowd Sr., his father, handed him a case that was in a difficult legal posture. Joe Barrale, a seaman working for Universal Towing, had been knocked off a barge due to high winds while moving hatch covers. Frantic rescue efforts failed and Joe drowned leaving a wife and a two-year- old son behind.
Barrale was a Jones Act case filed in state court but removed by the defendants to an Admiralty Court in the federal system pursuant to The Limitation of Liability Act of 1852. Dowd ultimately found a case at midnight at the Washington U. Law Library that expressed a legal principal that gave new grounds for a shot at an interlocutory appeal to the 8th Circuit and a chance to get back to state court.
He prepared the case for his Dad to argue, however, just days before the argument his father told him it was his case to argue and “declining is not an option, get ready.” He practiced his argument in front of anyone that would listen as well as in empty rooms. Dowd said, “It was a conceptually difficult case but I was relieved when the Judges started asking questions, it was clear that they had a better grasp of the law of this case than anyone I had talked with about it since I started working on it.”
The 8th Circuit handed down its opinion in Universal Towing Co. v. Barrale 595 F.2d 414 (8th Cir.Mo.) in March of 1979 granting Carla Barrale the right to return to state court and receive her trial by jury. The case settled several months later.
Dowd says, “Every young lawyer I have worked with should know what Barrale teaches: if you can think of a legal concept that may provide the answer to our current problem there will be a case that says it. That case might not express it in the words you imagined but it’s there. If you are relentless in your legal research the law will provide.” Dowd got the news of the 8th Circuit ruling three months after he took office after being elected Magistrate Judge in the City of St. Louis.
Tied to Community Through Deep St. Louis Roots
Dowd’s St. Louis roots run deep. His family members have worked in the justice system since 1858. His great grandfather, Sgt. Edward Dowd (no middle name), led a battalion of mounted policemen for many years in the late 1800’s and was considered a “consummate horsemen and leader of men.” Dowd’s grandfather worked the night shift in the city’s factory district in the early 1900’s and eventually rose to the level of Captain. He was a serious candidate for Chief but by then he was so close to retirement, after 48 years, he was passed over. The position of Major was created for him and Edward Patrick Dowd served as the first Major in the history of the St. Louis Police Department.
Dowd’s father, Edward L. Dowd Sr., was the first in the family to graduate from college; he then went on to law school. Dowd remembers, “He got elected circuit attorney in perhaps the biggest upset election in St. Louis history. He served as President of the St. Louis Police Board and was the Democratic nominee for Governor of Missouri in 1972. My father also taught all eight of us how to ride a horse! He was the most extraordinary person I have ever known.”
Dowd married Grace Glenn in 1981. “When I meet Grace my favorite song immediately switched from “Red River Valley” to “Amazing Grace,”” Dowd said. “She has quite simply made all that I do meaningful,” says Dowd. “We have fun and work hard in the office and at home.” They have two daughters, Samantha and Emily. Emily just graduated from the U. of Colorado this summer and is currently applying to law school. Samantha graduated from U. of California at Santa Barbara and now “teaches grey-water systems, permaculture, and sustainable farming in villages across Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, and India. We are proud of our daughters and can’t wait to see what they will do next.”
On the Bench: A Legacy of Judicial Innovation
Dowd has never been afraid to take on convention. He was 27 when he decided to run for magistrate judge in 1978.
His parents’ kitchen table served as campaign headquarters; the signs were painted in the garage. Dowd and his seven siblings hit the streets every day, knocking on doors talking to voters wherever they could be found. His cousin, Judge Robert G. Dowd Jr., now sitting on the Missouri Court of Appeals, was running for the same seat in an adjoining district and when the campaign hit full swing making a family affair through and through.
“There was a lot of controversy when we won,” Dowd said. “People were saying we didn’t have enough experience. My Mother, Carol Esther Thorlaksson Dowd, simply said ‘listen well and do what you know is right.’”
Dowd did not leave the bench for the next 23 years. During those years he became a Circuit Judge and eventually became Presiding Judge of that court. He went on to the Court of Appeals and served as Chief Judge of that court. The Missouri Supreme Court invited him to sit with them from time to time as well.
As presiding judge he began the work of starting the drug court in the city of St. Louis. According to Dowd, this became some of his most rewarding work.
Dowd knew that “many still thought we could build our way out of the drug problem in this country.” The one thing he says we should all know by now about jails: “If we build it, we will fill it.” After the Jackson County prosecutor, Claire McCaskill, gave Dowd’s team a two-day tour of her groundbreaking drug court. Dowd then became part of a group of judges and community leaders proposing a drug court for St. Louis.
Dowd successfully campaigned to establish the drug court, but even he could not imagine the level of success. Since its inception in 1997, over 1,500 drug offenders have graduated from the program and over 90 percent of those graduates have never suffered re-arrest for anything. The escalating cost of prisons— both in wasted human potential and in tax dollars—signaled a need for change at the judicial level according to Dowd. Dowd concludes by saying that “finding something that works on the demand side of the drug problem is simply the biggest news in law enforcement in the last 100 years. Drug courts literally transform lives.”
There Is a Time For Going…
Nine years ago Dowd made the decision to leave the bench, not knowing where his venture into private practice would take him.
“For 23 years my life was the judicial branch of government,” Dowd said. “Of course you think you know some things about practicing law from sitting on the bench so long. All I can do is smile when I think about what I knew then and what I know now nine years later. It has been quite an extraordinary experience.”
Dowd’s earliest opportunity to work in the private sector came from August Busch III. He joined Anheuser-Busch as a consultant on legal matters and governmental relations and was allowed to maintain a law practice at the same time. Dowd stayed on with AB until shortly after the company was purchased by European beer giant InBev.
“The opportunity to work with August Busch, Steve Lambright, and all the great people at AB was the beginning of everything for me in the private sector,” Dowd said. “If it wasn’t for August, I would never have been able to open my own law firm.”
Since opening James R. Dowd Attorney & Counselor at Law LLC, long time friend Martin Green has been a constant source of advice, wisdom, and counsel. Dowd said, “Martin is probably the best litigator in complex big business cases in this country.” Martin Green settled a shareholder class action against Bank of America for a half a billion dollars a few years ago. “He has taught ethics and complex litigation all over the country. When you can pick Martin’s brain about a legal question you are just plain lucky. My law practice would simply not be what it is today without Martin Green,” said Dowd.
The Case of a Lifetime
Leaving the bench was only the beginning of Jim Dowd’s journey after his time on the bench.
Today, the former Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals is fighting the legal battle of his career. In 2011, Dowd was part of the legal team that secured the largest collectible jury verdict in the history of Missouri on behalf of 16 children who were poisoned by massive quantities of lead while living near the Herculaneum smelter.
Dowd Tells the Story Like This:
Soon after leaving the bench Dowd called Mark Bronson about Dowd’s first client, a young man who had sustained serious injuries after being backed over by a piece of construction equipment. Dowd had seen Bronson try cases in his courtroom and argue many motions in Division 1 during his time as Presiding Judge of the St. Louis Circuit Court. “I needed a cocounsel that I knew could help me get some justice for this young man and Mark Bronson was my first and only call,” said Dowd. Dowd was sidelined from trying the case because one of his many relatives worked for the local distributor of the product. Bronson tried the case and received a very substantial jury verdict. With the distributor out of the case Dowd, Bronson, and Bronson’s son Steve went to work on the brief and Dowd argued the appeal. The verdict and judgment in Feiteira v. Clark Equipment Co. 236 S.W.3d 54. was affirmed by opinion of the Missouri Court of Appeals in April 2007.
After working together on a few other cases Bronson called Dowd and asked him to get involved in a case he and Gerson Smoger had been preparing for trial for over 12 years. Hundreds of children had been badly poisoned by the last primary lead smelter in the United States.
Dowd was interested. His oldest daughter, Samantha was getting her degree in environmental studies and over the last few years she had suggested several books on the history of industrial pollution in America to Dowd including A Civil Action and The Buffalo Creek Disaster. Dowd agreed to join the Smoger/Bronson Team but he could have no idea how much his life would change after entering his appearance in the Court of the Honorable Dennis M. Schaumann for the children of Herculaneum.
“The sincere dedication of Bronson and Smoger to the families involved in this case truly inspired me as a lawyer.” Dowd relates, “Mark and Gerson have powerful legal minds and they are perfectly relentless.” Dowd adds, “The one to watch in the future is Steve Bronson, not only has he learned more than any young lawyer in this country working for Gerson and Mark but in the first case he ever tried he got a verdict against a drunk driver for $89 million. This young man can move through a lot of tough legal issues and fast.”
As the lead smelter case unfolded, Dowd’s drive would help the legal team secure a historic victory and expose decades of irresponsibility on the part of those who operated the smelter.
“These kids lived in a cloud of lead dust,” Dowd remembers. “It was difficult to grasp the extent of the poisonings, that everyone involved with the smelter knew just how bad it was, and that they did nothing to stop it.”
Dowd’s former law clerk, Joe Yeckel, joined the team as the case neared trial and provided critically important research and writing skills when “we were confronted with a sea of attorney’s on the other side. The paper just kept coming and Joe handled a hell of a lot of it.” Throughout the course of the long and emotionally-charged trial, the team proved the owners of the smelter knew that the children were being exposed daily to lead in the air that was at least four to five times higher than the legal limit established by the EPA.
After deliberations, the jury awarded the children $320 million in punitive damages on top of $38 million in actual damages. Since the verdict, the legal battle has raged on in the trial court, the Court of Appeals, and the Missouri Supreme Court. Recent post-trial motions have kept Dowd awake into the early hours of the morning reminding him of life during the pre-trial motions and the trial itself. The focus of Dowd and the trial team remains locked on defending the judgments on appeal for these 16 families poisoned by the smelter.
“It is personal,” Dowd said. “The last three years have been some of the most significant and exciting work I’ve done in my life and I look forward to doing more of it.”
Today, Dowd spends his free time on the family farm outside St. Louis. He keeps his history close, as he charges forward with new cases and challenges. Dowd doesn’t talk about his legal career in terms of victories or accomplishment, but rather in terms of the people who came together to address issues, teach, and inspire him.
“None of us achieve anything by ourselves,” Dowd said. “I have a deep sense of gratitude for the people in my life. I could not have achieved anything without my encouraging family, supportive friends, and inspiring colleagues helping me at every turn.”