Russell Lovell, '69, receives Journey Award for sustained advocacy for racial justice

Russ Lovell with Nawi Ukabiala at The Hauge

A letter recently came across the desk of Dean Richard Moberly that grabbed his attention. The letter, from Betty C. Andrews, president of the Iowa-Nebraska NAACP State Area Conference of Branches, served as a reminder that Nebraska Law alumni continue the hard work of advancing justice for others every day. In this instance, for the work he has done over the course of 46 years of volunteerism for the NAACP and as a career advocate for racial justice and equality, Nebraska Law alumnus Russell E. Lovell, ll, ’69, received the Iowa Chapter of the National Bar Association’s 2020 Journey Award. In her letter sharing this news, Andrews wrote, “When I think of Russ and his commitment to the NAACP and the cause of civil rights, I am reminded of legendary Congressman John R. Lewis’s comments: ‘Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.’ Russ has been making noise and getting in ‘good trouble’ since 1970. It has been a joy to work with him and I have always found Russ to be ever hopeful, forever optimistic and constantly working to bend the arc of justice positively.”

Lovell grew up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, where his conservative family was involved in the Catholic church and the Republican Party. His father, Russell E. Lovell, ’38, worked the night shift at the Nebraska Reformatory to put himself through law school. His mother, Edythe, graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1937 with a degree in education. Russ, Sr. and Edythe then met in Scottsbluff, where he began his career as a solo practitioner and she one as a schoolteacher, later staying home with the children.

Lovell’s first experience with diversity was in 1952 at the age of eight, when his mom brought home a book about Jackie Robinson. He was moved by what he read, stating, “It wasn’t just Jackie; the Brooklyn Dodgers were the most integrated team throughout that era.” He recalled years later as a Drake law professor, “I spent a good deal of time talking about Jackie in class because of his incredible courage. His extraordinary success in the face of the unrelenting racism during that era broke down many racial stereotypes and helped set the stage for Brown v. the Board of Education. Jackie planted the seed and his story resonated with me,” said Lovell.

With the seed planted, Lovell continued to grow through his public school experiences. “Scottsbluff was residentially quite segregated with Latinos largely residing on the southeast side of town. It was not state-imposed segregation as in the South, so it was not as hostile or meanspirited—but it was segregation and discrimination, nonetheless. Only a handful of Mexican American children attended Longfellow, my elementary school. One of the good things about a small town, though, is that even if neighborhoods are segregated, everyone goes to the same high school. It was in the school and sports settings that I grew to know them, not as Latinos, but just classmates.”

After high school, Lovell sought his undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame, where Father Theodore Hesburgh, “Father Ted,” was serving as president. Lovell supported the idea that civil rights were handled locally, but Father Ted’s actions opened his eyes to new ideals and the transformative role the federal government could play. Hesburgh, an educator and author, was involved in multiple American civic and governmental initiatives and, during his service on the United States Civil Rights Commission, was deeply involved in drafting the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In 1966 and upon completion of Notre Dame’s 3-3 program, where he earned a degree in accounting, Lovell chose to attend Nebraska Law. 

“My dad told me how important grades were and that I shouldn’t work during first year so that I could concentrate and rank in the top 10% of class. I listened and my grades earned me a spot on the Nebraska Law Review, which ended up playing a significant role in my professional career.”

Professor Harvey Perlman and Omaha lawyer Robert Kutak were of profound influence while Lovell completed an externship with the Nebraska Governor’s Crime Commission, where his work on legislative reform and constitutional issues peaked his interest in public service, “No summer clerkships would ever have been as good as the experience I had with Professor Perlman and Bob Kutak.” In a forthcoming Centennial Issue of the Nebraska Law Review, Lovell writes about that exceptional externship and its catalyst role in a journey that led to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 landmark decision in Morrissey v. Brewer.

During Lovell’s time in law school, the Civil Rights Movement was already in full swing. “Most law schools didn’t even have a class on civil rights at that time. It became evident that even though I have a background in accounting and business, it wasn’t where my heart and soul belonged. I gravitated towards civil rights and how the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were reinvigorated by the Earl Warren Supreme Court. When we read cases on racial segregation in the south, it made me realize that the history I’d been taught wasn’t very accurate. Segregation was more apartheid than separate but equal. I had no idea about the Buffalo Soldiers or the time they spent at nearby Fort Robinson. The idea of civil rights was not something my parents ever fully understood, leading to a contentious relationship between the three of us.”

During Lovell’s 2L year United States Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas delivered a speech on campus that forever resonated with him, “Justice Fortas didn’t talk about his work as a justice, instead, he talked about a pro bono case in which he represented an inmate, Clarence Gideon, on an appeal to U.S. Supreme Court. The issue was whether the due process clause of the 14th amendment required the state to provide an attorney for a criminal defendant if he was unable to afford to hire one. He won that case, which continues today as a landmark decision in terms of justice and equality.” Justice Fortas then encouraged the Law College students “to live your lives in the law. As a lawyer you will make a good living and enjoy prestige. But you can do much more. You have a special skill set, and I challenge you to use it in the fight for justice and equality.” Russ went home and typed up Fortas’s words and taped them to the wall over his desk. He has strived to fulfill them ever since. The assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 deepened his conviction that civil rights work was a commitment he would fulfill after graduation, but that also meant postponing any return to Scottsbluff to join his dad’s practice.

Immediately upon graduation Lovell accepted a judicial law clerk position with Judge Floyd Gibson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit in Kansas City. After the completion of his clerkship with Judge Gibson, he and wife, Linda, and their two young daughters, Ann and Amy, moved to Indianapolis, where he served as a staff attorney, then director of litigation, for the Indianapolis Legal Services Organization. He also served as the law director for the Indiana Center on Law and Poverty, where his work focused on a variety of major federal court civil rights cases, including service as lead counsel on the NAACP class action case that integrated the Indiana State Police Department. Eventually, Lovell landed his dream job: law professor. During tenure of 38 years at Drake, he taught Constitutional Law and Employment Discrimination Litigation, Civil Rights and Litigation, and served as associate dean for ten years. He was honored as Drake’s 2014 Outstanding Professor for Experiential Education for his creation of a program—now in its 25th year — through which the entire 1L class observes an actual jury trial, supplemented by daily small group sessions and concluding debriefings with the trial judge, attorneys and, following the verdict, the jurors themselves. He also created a public service scholarship program and became the director of the program until his retirement in 2014. During that time, he mentored more than 80 public service scholars. Former Drake law student and mentee, Nawi Ukabiala, stated, “He taught me so much about the law and the type of lawyer that I want to be. He has a burning passion for civil rights and equality in this country that is truly unparalleled.”

Through his work with the NAACP, he was lead counsel on cases that desegregated the Indiana State Police Department and the Des Moines Fire Department. He later served as co-counsel on the remedies portion of the NAACP case that desegregated the Kansas City school district.

Though retired from Drake in 2014, Lovell continues his pro bono work with the NAACP, pushing boundaries with aspirations of continuing change for the good. He and his longtime colleague David Walker have filed eight NAACP Amicus Briefs in the Iowa Supreme Court, and their advocacy was credited during the INBA Awards ceremony as positively influencing the Iowa Supreme Court’s jurisprudence that strives to achieve juries that are truly representative of their communities.