Ronald E. Nehring, who as a justice on the Utah Supreme Court wrote opinions on such hot-button issues as gun rights and whether life begins at conception, died Friday from complications connected to radiation treatments he received years earlier to treat cancer. He was 71.
Nehring served on Utah’s high court from 2003 to 2014, and was one of the few justices who was not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His family said Nehring, a Lutheran, did his job with humility and humor.
His older daughter, Jesse Nehring, said that a lawyer arguing before the court once kept repeating the word “abide.” “The lawyer was saying ‘abide this’ and ‘abide that,’" she said. "Finally, Ron says, ‘So, when does the Dude abide?’”
“We like that our dad quoted ‘The Big Lebowski’ on the Supreme Court,” said his younger daughter, Kyle Nehring.
Christine Durham, the retired Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, said Nehring “was a very engaging colleague. He cared about other people.”
Durham, who swore in Nehring in 2003, said “I do recall several cases where Justice Nehring had engaged in acutely focused research, and was able to sway minds on the court.”
“Ron was a judge’s judge,” said Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant in a statement Saturday. “He treated all who appeared before him, and all with whom he worked, with unwavering dignity and respect. He had a rock-solid commitment to justice. His opinions were always thoughtful and elegantly written. He was the kind of person, the kind of judge, we all should aspire to be.”
Nehring was always thoughtful on the bench, said Francis Wikstrom, a longtime friend. “He knew what it was like to be in the trenches as a district court judge, and he was always attuned to that.”
“I loved the way his mind worked,” Wikstrom said. “He could look at things differently than everybody else. … A road trip with Ron was always an adventure for the conversation.”
Current Justice Deno Himonas added: “His thoughtfulness, humor, and constant reminder to, ‘do justice,’ inspired me to want to be a better version of myself."
Gov. Michael Leavitt appointed Nehring to the Supreme Court in 2003. The fact that he was a Lutheran was an issue at his Utah Senate confirmation hearings, his daughters said.
“He always liked to point out that he was the diversity candidate on the court,” Kyle Nehring said. Jesse Nehring added, “They thought a crazy liberal was coming onto the Supreme Court in Utah.”
When the confirmation hearings began, the daughters said, Nehring had just completed three rounds of chemo and 40 days of radiation for cancer in his head and neck. He brought his doctor from Huntsman Cancer Institute along to vouch for his health.
“They actually asked him if he was going to die, why should he be on the court,” Kyle Nehring said.
At his confirmation hearing, Nehring also was grilled over an order he signed as presiding judge of the 3rd District Court, carrying out a Utah Judicial Council decision to ban gun lockers in courthouses.
In 2004, Nehring wrote the court’s opinion finding that AOL had the right as a private business to ban firearms from its employee parking lot.
In his opinion, Nehring cited "an evolving discussion about the role of firearms in our society. While certain areas of that debate are more developed that others, [state law] rejects the idea that, in the face of a freely entered-into agreement to the contrary, an employee has the right to carry a firearm on the employer's premises.”
When Nehring came up for a retention vote in 2006, the group Gun Owners of Utah mounted a campaign to try to oust him. The effort failed.
In a 2011 case, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that parents can file wrongful death lawsuits against health care providers in the death of an unborn child. The majority opinion said the term “minor child” could apply to a fetus. Nehring dissented, arguing that “the plain meaning of ‘minor child’ does not include a fetus,” and that “a construction of ‘minor child’ that encompasses an unborn fetus creates absurd results under our laws."
In 2013, Nehring was named associate chief justice to the Utah Supreme Court. He retired from Utah’s high court in 2014.
In a 2015 interview in the Utah Bar Journal, Nehring said his most memorable opinion was in a case where a family’s lawsuit against State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. exposed the company’s efforts to avoid paying customers’ claims.
A jury awarded the Campbell family of Lewiston $1 million in damages and $145 million in punitive damages. State Farm fought that figure all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which capped punitive damages at less than 10 times the actual damages — what’s now called the “single-digit rule.” When the case came back to the Utah Supreme Court, Nehring wrote the opinion that State Farm had to pay the maximum, just over $9 million, in punitive damages for its “toxic” and “odious” behavior.
Nehring was born Oct. 4, 1947, in Fon du Lac, Wis., and grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich. He attended Cornell University, where he ran track-and-field, and went to law school at the University of Utah. He ran cross-country for the Chicago Track Club, and was an alternate on the 1972 U.S. Olympic team in Munich.
In 1974, he married Kristina Hindert, a child psychiatrist in Salt Lake City. They raised three children.
Nehring’s first job after graduating from law school in 1978 was at Utah Legal Services, providing legal assistance to low-income people. He eventually became the organization’s managing attorney.
“He was somebody that was always looking at how to help people that needed help, and were less fortunate,” Jesse Nehring said. “But he never did it in a way that was demeaning. He was just always sincere and kind and accepting.”
In 1981, Nehring joined the law firm of Prince, Yeates & Geldzahler, practicing civil litigation. After being passed over twice, Nehring was appointed to the 3rd District Court in 1995, and later became the district court’s presiding judge.
Nehring was athletic and enjoyed the outdoors, Wikstrom said, particularly cross-country skiing and cycling. Nehring’s daughters said their dad was active in “ride-and-tie,” a race event involving a team of two taking turns running and riding a horse. He stayed active even after a stroke in 2008 that was caused, his daughters said, by blood vessels that were weakened by his cancer treatments.
Nehring is survived by his wife, Kristina, and their three children, Lincoln, Jesse and Kyle.
A memorial service is set for Nehring on Monday, June 3, at 3:30 p.m., at Shepherd of the Mountains Lutheran Church, 4051 State Road 224, Park City. A larger memorial service will be held later this summer.
Correction: 1 p.m. May 25 • An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Nehring as the first non-member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to serve on the Utah Supreme Court.