Las Vegas Sun

October 15, 2018

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Former U.S. Judge Claiborne dies at 86

Harry Claiborne, an impeached federal judge who returned to prominence as a defense attorney and refused to allow bitterness over his downfall to cloud his colorful life and career, died Monday. He was 86.

Claiborne, a shrewd defense attorney who long battled cancer and a heart condition, committed suicide, his family confirmed today.

"My road through life has indeed been a rocky one, but, my God, it has been exciting -- I'm the lucky one," Claiborne said in his folksy Arkansas drawl for an Oct. 3, 1996, Sun story.

Services for Claiborne, whose impeachment conviction in the U.S. Senate drove him from the federal bench on Oct. 10, 1986, are pending.

Claiborne, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1978 and rose to chief U.S. district judge for Nevada, was the first federal judge in 50 years to be stripped of his duties and the 13th federal official to be impeached by the House.

Claiborne was convicted in federal court in Reno in 1984 for filing false tax returns, for which he served an 18-month prison term. His first trial on similar charges as well as allegations he received bribes from brothel owner Joe Conforte ended in a hung jury. In the second case federal prosecutors did not pursue the bribery charges.

Claiborne's three-day impeachment trial was aired live on C-SPAN in the middle of the Senate's hectic last days before its year-end recess. It was covered by all the major networks and newspapers.

"I have no hatred toward anybody who brought this on," Claiborne said in the 1996 Sun story. "It takes a lot of energy to hate. If you've got to pick up the pieces and go forward with your life, you need all the energy you've got."

His wife, Norma Ries, said Claiborne shot himself in the head Monday evening at their home. Both Ries and her 22-year-old grandson, Aaron, were in the house at the time.

"Harry and I were in the bedroom watching 'American Idol' and laughing about the people who couldn't sing," she said. "Harry said his back was hurting and he wanted to go into the den to sit down. Two minutes later my grandson and I heard a gunshot."

Ries said Claiborne had been in a lot of pain lately and believed that cancer had returned to his body. Doctors had recently discovered a spot on his liver.

"He was in so much pain, but didn't want to go to the hospital," she said. "He was in the hospital in June, and he told me he never wanted to go back there again."

Ries, who spent 27 years with Claiborne, said her husband also had Alzheimer's Disease, which was slowly progressing, and she suspected that cancer also had invaded his bones.

"He had good days and bad days," she said. "He had fallen twice in the last week and had a big black eye."

Ries said she was in the process of making funeral arrangements this morning.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, who as an attorney represented Claiborne during his two criminal trials and his impeachment proceedings in Congress, said Claiborne should be remembered as a man who "put his clients before anything else.

"From the time I was a young lawyer coming into town, he was the first criminal defense lawyer I met," Goodman said. "He was a master of the profession. He was unparalleled as far as his ability to marshal the facts of the case and ... present them in a clear and concise way to the jury."

"He was enchanting as far as his work was concerned. I can't think of anybody I miss more in the legal community than Harry Claiborne."

Goodman said he last saw Claiborne in November, when the two spent several hours on stage during presentations at the Lloyd George Federal Building.

"We had an opprtunity to embrace and share our memories of each other," Goodman said. "We spoke thereafter and said we have to get together for lunch ... a lot of missed lunches in my life."

Goodman said Claiborne was a tireless worker who "really believed in the American system of justice and there was nobody better at it than Harry Claiborne."

In addition to defending Claiborne, Goodman worked with him many times, the first major case defending two men accused of bribing an IRS agent.

"We got an acquittal on that case," said Goodman. "We just represented tons of people over the years. It was a pleasure to work with him ... he was a student of the law."

Attorney Richard Wright, Claiborne's law partner of the past decade, said he was "in shock" this morning over Claiborne's sudden death.

"He was as close to me as my own dad," he said. "There was nobody better than him."

Senior U.S. District Judge Lloyd George said he remembered Claiborne as a talented lawyer.

"He had a genius about him especially in criminal cases, and he was really a very insightful guy," George said. "He was also the best storyteller in the world, and he knew how to keep people in stitches."

George said that Claiborne often told stories about lawyering, but he also liked to talk about hunting.

One story George recalled Claiborne telling involved an excellent hunting dog that was named lawyer.

"This dog was just the most help to anyone who was hunting," George said. "A few years went by and the hunter goes to borrow lawyer for another hunting trip, but the dog's owner tells the hunter he can't use the dog.

"The owner says the dog is no good anymore because he changed dog's name to judge, and now all he does is sit around and growl."

Private investigator Tom Dillard, who had become close friends with Claiborne while working for the estate of murdered casino executive Ted Binion, said he knew Claiborne's health had been deteriorating, but he found him in good spirits when he last saw him a week ago."

"His spirits were up, and he was cracking jokes," Dillard said. "He was one of the funniest and wittiest guys to be around.

"He was smart as a whip. Rick Wright once told me that Harry at half speed was better than most people at full speed."

Dan Newburn, a friend of 34 years and Claiborne's pastor at the Summerlin Community Baptist Church, said Claiborne was: "The champion for the people nobody wanted to deal with.

"He was well known for his representation of infamous people, but also for police officers before ths civil service board. He represented them for no charge.

"He always found the time to talk to people and he was genuinely interested in what you had to say. He has friends from highest echelon to those with the most meager jobs. He treated them all with respect."

Born in McRae, Ark., on July 2, 1917, he was the son of a farmer and a schoolteacher who got his law degree from Cumberland University in Arkansas and passed the Arkansas bar in 1942.

Claiborne moved to Las Vegas during World War II when he was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base.

He was a police officer briefly before passing the Nevada Bar in 1946. He served as a Clark County deputy district attorney a year later.

Benny Binion convinced Claiborne to go into private practice and serve as his lawyer after being impressed with his attorney skills that won Claiborne a conviction against a Binion bodyguard who had been involved in a shooting.

A flamboyant attorney, Claiborne would frighten opposing counsel by carrying in large stacks of papers that he passed off as his evidence in the case. The papers in the folders often were blank.

He also served one term as a Democratic state assemblyman.

Regarding his tax conviction, Claiborne long maintained he was too busy on the bench to pay close attention to his tax return, noting he never even looked at the document until his accountant brought it to him. "I asked how much I owed, and I wrote a check," Claiborne said many times.

"If they ever write down anything I've ever done in my whole life, they'll be able to say Harry Claiborne had a court in which the little citizen received a fair and just treatment from the bench," Claiborne told the Senate at his impeachment hearing.

He begged senators to allow him to present compelling evidence that his tax conviction was the result of a mean-spirited Justice Department vendetta that destroyed the careers of other government bureaucrats in its way.

That vendetta, Claiborne alleged, included giving fugitive brothel baron Conforte millions in tax breaks to accuse the judge of taking a bribe.

At the time, Conforte, who had fled the country following a tax evasion conviction, owned the Mustang Ranch brothel east of Reno. He was persuaded by former Las Vegas FBI chief Joseph Yablonsky to return to Nevada from his posh hideout in Brazil to testify against Claiborne.

The brothel kingpin's testimony, however, did not turn out to be credible, and following a mistrial in Reno federal court, the government dropped the charges. Claiborne was tried again solely on charges of filing false tax returns and was convicted.

Before he was led away by U.S. marshals, Claiborne handed a note to his biggest defender, the late Sun Publisher Hank Greenspun.

"A part of my soul died here today," he told Greenspun.

Based on a motion by then-Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., the Senate voted against allowing Claiborne to present the witnesses that could have corroborated his story. The Sun had documented the allegations in a seven-part series in 1982. Claiborne was convicted of three of four articles of impeachment and ordered removed from the bench.

Claiborne said he felt betrayed by the Senate that failed to give him a fair trial in its "rush to judgment."

Since then, time and circumstances -- primarily his health -- have mellowed Claiborne.

"Clearing my name is not a priority anymore," he told the Sun in 1996. "I've always felt that somewhere down the line, a lot of things will come out. Maybe it will be in my lifetime. Maybe it won't. But I don't worry about it."

Claiborne was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1990. It later spread to his groin and spine. He had a heart attack in 1991.

He treated his ailment with a combination of radiation and a special brew of herbs he took three times daily.

Despite his tax conviction and removal from the bench, Claiborne remained respected in the Las Vegas legal community. Shortly after leaving prison, the Nevada Supreme Court reinstated him to the bar, allowing him to resume practicing law.

He went on to work for the Binion family, owners of the Horseshoe, and more recently for the estate of Ted Binion. He delivered the eulogy for the colorful gaming figure and represented Ted Binion's daughter, Bonnie, who inherited the bulk of Ted's gambling fortune.

Before becoming a judge, Claiborne was one of the top defense lawyers in the state, a cagey strategist with brilliant oratorical skills in the courtroom.

In addition to his wife, Claiborne is survived by three daughters, Carol Johnson, Nancy Claiborne and Janice Kollander and five grandchildren.

Sun reporters Jace Radke and Sito Negron and Sun librarian Rebecca Bagayas contributed to this story.