Donald P. Lay, 49BA, 51JD, was appointed to the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966. At the time, he was 39 years old and the second youngest person ever appointed to the Court of Appeals.
Lay first enrolled at the University of Iowa to study radio journalism and then, after graduation, enrolled in law school, followed by a long legal career full of distinctions and honors. From 1951 to 1966, he practiced law in Omaha. His appointment to the Court of Appeals, just 15 years after graduation from law school, was unusual because many judges begin at the trial court level, not a court one step below the US Supreme Court.
Lay became chief judge of the Eighth Circuit Court in 1980 and held the position for a record-breaking 12 years before retiring in 1992 and taking senior status. Lay is credited with streamlining and modernizing the Eighth Circuit's administrative system, defending the constitutional rights of individuals, and producing a body of clear, concise, reasoned work.
He has written some 2,000 opinions and dissents and more than 50 articles for legal publications, taught hundreds of students, and tried hundreds of cases. In addition, Lay founded the Eighth Circuit Historical Society to preserve the history of the courts. When Lay stepped down as chief judge, the William Mitchell Law Review published a biography and two tributes in which he was remembered as someone who helped make the judiciary more accessible to the just claims of all citizens, regardless of their race, gender, or wealth.
During his 25 years on the federal bench, Lay often made clear his liberal ideology. He penned decisions for the court that supported free choice in major abortion cases and denounced capital punishment in a case. He has remained an active jurist, sitting often in various federal circuit and district courts.
Lay has also taught in the law schools of the University of Minnesota, Creighton University in Omaha, and the University of Uppsala, in Uppsala, Sweden, and in the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. In 1982, Lay was named the Outstanding Federal Appellate Judge of the Year by the American Trial Lawyers and, in 1988, he received the American Judicature Society's Herbert Harley Award in recognition of his contribution to the administration of justice. He is also a recipient of the Hancher-Finkbine award from the University of Iowa. Lay has retained his links with Iowa as a life member of the UI Alumni Association and as a member of the UI Foundation's Presidents Club.
In 1992, the University of Iowa College of Law presented Lay with an Alumni Achievement Award, commending him for his commitment to legal scholarship and his distinguished career as a jurist.
Lay's passion for the law, his devotion to the welfare of society, and his commitment to the rights of the individual have been an inspiration to other lawyers and an affirmation of the US legal system.