Former Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice E.M. “Al” Gunderson, who sat on the high court during an era marked by infighting, died Thursday at his Las Vegas home. He was 80.
“There were powerful people who hated Al, but there were a legion of people, including the powerful and including the absolutely powerless, who loved Al,” longtime friend Bill Curran said Friday.
Curran, a Las Vegas attorney, visited Gunderson on Thursday but said the former justice, who had suffered a stroke in recent weeks, was not responsive. Curran said he was notified about Gunderson’s death moments after leaving his bedside to catch a flight to Philadelphia.
Gunderson was elected to the state Supreme Court in November 1970 and served for several years as chief justice before retiring from the high court at the end of 1988. He later worked part time as a senior justice.
Curran said he met Gunderson in 1973, when Curran came to Nevada to work as the justice’s law clerk.
A year later, when Curran was state court administrator, the two men worked together to increase the education and training of Nevada’s lower court judges. At the time, most seats in the state’s municipal and justice courts were filled by nonlawyers.
After two years with the Nevada Supreme Court, Curran left to take a job with the Clark County district attorney’s office, but he and Gunderson remained friends.
“He was as proud of who his enemies were as he was of who his friends were,” Curran recalled. “He could be as raw as a north wind to those who tried to unjustifiably impose themselves above others because of their wealth or their positions.”
Curran said Gunderson loved the law — and not just for its intellectual component.
“He also loved the fact that it could level the playing field for people who were being discriminated against or looked down on by others,” the lawyer said.
According to a 1992 story in the Las Vegas Sun, Gunderson was “born of Norwegian stock in Minneapolis during the Great Depression” and was a parachute rifleman in the Army’s 11th Airborne Division before pursuing undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota and University of Omaha.
Gunderson headed to the West Coast to pursue a maritime career but stopped in Las Vegas.
He spent a year dealing craps and shilling at blackjack and roulette in downtown casinos, earning $7 a shift, according to the Sun story.
But Gunderson eventually resumed his education, earned a law degree from Creighton University in Nebraska and returned to Nevada in 1958 to practice law.
Curran described the time Gunderson spent as a paratrooper in Korea as a defining experience in the man’s life. Curran said Gunderson learned from it that “sometimes there were fights that needed to be fought, even if they couldn’t be won.”
Steve Parsons said he met Gunderson in 1975, when the justice administered his oath to become a Nevada attorney at a routine ceremony for new lawyers. During the next five years, Parsons worked with Curran as a prosecutor at the Clark County district attorney’s office and developed a friendship with Gunderson.
Parsons said the justice would sometimes stay at his home when visiting Southern Nevada and the two would go sailing together on Lake Mead. They also were office mates for a few years after Gunderson retired from the Supreme Court.
“He was small-town America, but he was world-class in his understanding of what the law could do to protect people,” said Parsons, who described Gunderson as a tough man who “took no BS from anybody.”
“I think even in his later years there were those who woefully underestimated Al’s commitment to the difference between right and wrong.”
Attorney Laura FitzSimmons vividly remembers meeting Gunderson on Jan. 5, 1981 — her first day in Nevada. She had been hired as then-Justice Charles Springer’s law clerk, and she went to dinner that evening with Springer, Gunderson and others at a Mexican restaurant in Carson City.
Gunderson was wearing a “double-stitched, polyester, Western-style leisure suit. I’ll never forget it,” FitzSimmons said with a laugh. “He was absolutely hilarious. He was totally opinionated, outrageous and fascinating.”
She acknowledged that Gunderson had many enemies.
“He didn’t mind rocking the boat, and he didn’t suffer fools,” she said.
Curran said Gunderson started the feuding within the Supreme Court by being “an unrestrained workaholic” who expected more from his fellow justices at a time when the court “was a very lazy, easygoing gentleman’s club.”
“In retrospect, maybe he could have been more diplomatic in his approach,” Curran said.
Gunderson participated in thousands of decisions during his 18 years on the state’s high court, but his later years on the bench were marred by controversy, with some lawyers accusing him of using his power vindictively.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal published a series of investigative reports on Gunderson’s influence on the state legal system in 1988, less than a year before the chief justice retired from the Supreme Court.
The stories raised questions about Gunderson’s ethics.
In one report, legal ethics experts suggested Gunderson had created an appearance of impropriety in a private contact with then-Attorney General Brian McKay by asking him to raise money for former congressman Cliff Young’s campaign against then-Chief Justice Noel Manoukian, a bitter Gunderson enemy.
McKay said Gunderson’s war with Manoukian lay at the heart of Gunderson’s request, which McKay declined.
Gunderson argued that the judiciary should be allowed to participate in getting qualified judges on the bench, and he noted that he wasn’t the only judge who supported Young in 1984.
Within months of winning the election, Young was feuding with Gunderson, whom Young described as “a bright guy but a master manipulator.”
Another story in the Review-Journal’s 1988 series suggested Gunderson had violated judicial ethics standards by discussing a pending case in public. Gunderson said he did nothing wrong.
According to another story in the series, Gunderson privately influenced McKay to change a recommendation to study early retirement for a district judge in 1986.
McKay said he was concerned that Gunderson had breached the separation of powers doctrine.
In a prepared statement, Gunderson said he acted properly, and that if anyone meddled in the case, it was McKay.
In 1989, Las Vegas attorney Steve Morris accused Gunderson of failing to disclose his wife’s business dealings with a prominent lawyer who won a multimillion-dollar appeal at the Supreme Court the previous year.
Morris, who was seeking Gunderson’s disqualification, said the failure to disclose the relationship added “to the appearance of actual and implied bias that exists in this case.”
Gunderson, who was recovering at his Carson City home from a heart attack at the time, called the allegations “laughable.”
On Friday, Curran said Gunderson and his longtime wife, Guadalupe, had a heart-warming love story.
“I don’t know two people who have ever been more devoted to each other,” he said.
Attempts to reach Guadalupe Gunderson for comment Friday were unsuccessful.
Curran said the couple raised the woman’s son, Rand , together.
During the 1990s, Gunderson was associated with a Supreme Court faction that backed former Washoe County District Judge Jerry Carr Whitehead in a disciplinary matter that divided the court. FitzSimmons represented Whitehead.
In December 2003, Gunderson testified at a hearing of the state Pardons Board when it considered granting clemency to Frank LaPena, who had been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for his involvement in the 1974 murder-for-hire killing of Hilda Krause in her Las Vegas Country Club home.
Gunderson, who was on the Supreme Court during some of the appeals in LaPena’s case, said his analysis of the evidence suggested that LaPena should never have been charged in the case because the only evidence was from accomplices who had been given deals by the prosecution.
The board voted 7-1 in favor of clemency for LaPena, who was paroled in January 2005 at the age of 67.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at email@example.com or 702-384-8710.