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Published August 11, 2009, 12:00 AM

Webb recalled as ‘towering figure’

Friends and colleagues say judge brought a sense of humanity to bench.
Rodney Webb was a judge who liked lawyers, liked the intellectual tug of war of the law, and especially liked presiding over the swearing-in of new citizens.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

Rodney Webb was a judge who liked lawyers, liked the intellectual tug of war of the law, and especially liked presiding over the swearing-in of new citizens.

The U.S. District Court judge, who died Sunday at age 74 after a battle with lung cancer, was remembered Monday for the warmth and compassion he displayed during his 21 years on the bench.

Before he was named a federal judge, Webb served as U.S. attorney for North Dakota, from 1981 to 1987. President Ronald Reagan appointed him to both positions.

Webb took senior status in 2002, a semi-retirement for federal judges, but remained active in hearing cases until his health no longer allowed it. He had served as the chief judge in U.S. District Court in North Dakota for nine years.

“Judge Webb was the kind of person who knew only one speed – full speed ahead,” said U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson, who called Webb his friend and mentor. “Judge Webb was one of the biggest-hearted people I’ve known.”

Webb’s career as a prosecutor began as a Walsh County state’s attorney, and his service as a judge started as a municipal judge in Grafton, N.D. He also served in the North Dakota Army National Guard’s Judge Advocate General Corps, retiring as a colonel.

“He’s had a lifetime of service to the people of North Dakota and the United States,” Erickson said. “He’ll be deeply missed. He was truly a great man. Mostly we’ll miss his presence.”

Most recently, Webb presided over the Fargo traffic fines case, but is perhaps best known for overseeing the prosecution of defendants convicted in the shooting of a U.S. marshal and deputy in 1983.

Yet Erickson said Webb took the same care and attention to smaller, routine legal cases that he brought to the high-profile cases, and probably considered his most important case to be whatever he was working on at the time.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Klein said Webb was always forthright – lawyers and parties appearing before him never had to wonder where they stood.

“He really enjoyed that tug of war, that intellectual debate that you could enjoy with the law,” she said. “He would test you, play devil’s advocate.”

Marlin Herald once appeared as a defendant before Webb, who sentenced him to jail, diverting him from prison, when he was 18 years old. The two men later became friends.

“He cared at a time when I thought no one else cared,” said Herald, who lives in Fargo. “I looked at him as a father figure or a grandpa.”

Gary Annear, a retired first assistant U.S. attorney, said Webb could be like a stern father or uncle from the bench, sometimes lecturing defendants. “He was quoting his mother, ‘Nothing good ever happened after midnight,’ ” Annear said, chuckling.

One of the young lawyers Webb helped mentor was Drew Wrigley, U.S. attorney for North Dakota.

“He is a wise and towering figure,” said Wrigley, whom Webb hired in 1989, after Wrigley’s first year of law school. “He got there the old-fashioned way. He earned it.”

Webb, a native of Cavalier, N.D., practiced law in Grafton, N.D., before becoming U.S. attorney.

Webb had a gift for coaxing the best argument out of lawyers on both sides of an issue, and liked to sit back and evaluate the positions, a process he thoroughly enjoyed, Wrigley said.

“He was such a loving guy,” Wrigley added. “He loved his family, he loved his profession, he loved his work. It’s a sad day in the office.”

Earlier this year, Webb received the Light of Justice Award from the North Dakota Trial Lawyers Association. In 1999, he received the Sioux Award, the highest honor given by the University of North Dakota Alumni Association. He was the University of North Dakota School of Law’s Distinguished Jurist in Residence in 2007.

Webb was a devoted fan of the UND football team. He played for UND on a scholarship in his college years, graduating with a business degree in 1957.

He is survived by his wife, Betty, five children and 12 grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his parents and an infant daughter.

Memorials can be sent to the UND Law School’s Rodney and Betty Webb Endowment, the Hope Lutheran Foundation and Churches United for the Homeless.

The funeral will be 2 p.m. Thursday at Hope Lutheran Church’s south campus, 3636 25th St. S., Fargo. Visitation will be from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Hope Lutheran Church, south campus. There will be a prayer service at 7 p.m. at Hope Lutheran Church.

Burial will be at Grafton Lutheran Cemetery at a later date.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522