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Respected Chief Judge and Teacher Donald Lay Dies

Portrait of Donald Lay

Donald P. Lay, who taught at the Law School from 1984 to 1991, died April 29 at his home in North Oaks, Minnesota, at age 80. “Judge Donald Lay was one of the outstanding leaders of the judiciary in this country. For many years he taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, and our students were privileged to take his seminar on the Supreme Court,” says Robert A. Stein, Dean Emeritus and Everett Fraser Professor of Law. “In that seminar, he reviewed cases on the current docket of the U.S. Supreme Court and assigned individual students to represent individual Justices in predicting how ‘their’ justice would decide each of the cases. It was a wonderful learning experience for the students who had the good fortune of being in his seminar.”

He was the second-youngest person, at age 39, ever selected for the court when President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1966. He served on the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for 26 years, a record-breaking 12 of them, from 1980 until he retired from active court work in 1992, as Chief Judge. He continued to serve as a senior judge through 2006.

“Judge Lay is noted for being a strong defender of the constitutional rights of individuals and was a national leader in modernizing and improving the court's administrative systems,” Stein says. “He received many awards, including the American Judicature Society's Herbert Harley Award in recognition of his contribution to the administration of justice, and the American Trial Lawyers award as the Outstanding Federal Appellate Judge of the Year.”

He also received numerous awards and an honorary doctor of laws degree from William Mitchell College of Law, where he taught from 1982-2000.

Judge Lay was born in Princeton, Illinois, and attended Iowa City High School and the U.S. Naval Academy. He received his law degree from the University of Iowa in 1949 and was a trial lawyer in Omaha and Milwaukee before beginning his 41-year career with the federal judiciary.

He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Miriam, and their five daughters: Catherine Lay, Cindy Elston, Betsy Lay, Debbie Ford, and Susan Lay. He was preceded in death by his son, Stephen P. Lay.

Visitation is Wednesday, May 2, 5-8 p.m. in the Holcomb-Henry-Boom Funeral Home, Shoreview, Minnesota. A memorial service will be held Thursday, May 3, 11:00 a.m. at Arlington Hills United Methodist Church, Maplewood, Minnesota. Interment will be in Omaha, Nebraska.