Elmer Millard “Al” Gunderson was born August 9, 1929 on the proverbial “wrong side of the tracks” in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A life story of never knowing an invalid father— in his own words, having met his father perhaps four times while growing up—and feeling as if he were at times an “orphan” are evident in the man he became.
From inauspicious beginnings—bouncing from high school to high school, and completing a GED—Gunderson rose to Chief Justice of the Nevada Supreme Court. A 2010 memoriam in Nevada Lawyer lays out a concise picture of a man who made strong friends and enemies throughout a tumultuous life and legal career.
Justice Gunderson’s oral history is an expansive testimony that skips around in time and place. He describes starting college, interrupting school for military service as a paratrooper in the Korean conflict, spending time in Las Vegas, going back to college, and, finally, attending law school at Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, Nebraska (1956).
A childhood friend’s father, a bookmaker, gave “Al” Gunderson a Las Vegas entrée to Davey Berman a.k.a. “Davey the Jew,” who ultimately “took over the Flamingo Hotel... the morning after someone sent Mr. [Bugsy] Siegel to heaven.” Berman gave “Al” his first job in Las Vegas as a casino shill.
After law school came advanced legal studies at the Lawyers’ Institute, work at the Federal Trade Commission in Chicago, and the Chicago Chess and Checker Club, where Justice Gunderson equates the strategy and tactics of chess to warfare and legal practice.
Returning to Las Vegas in 1957, Gunderson worked with Leo McNamee and Sam Lionel, both early mentors. Joining the Clark County Jaycees rewarded him with friends, alliances, clients, and, more importantly, statewide support when he later decided to run for the Nevada Supreme Court. Justice Gunderson openly enjoys colorful stories and his brushes with “so-called underworld” figures. His narration of representing hotel-casino owners, developers, and the Teamster’s Union are the vigorish—a casino industry term for payoff—for delving into this oral history.
In 1970, when Justice Gunderson decided to run for an open seat on the Nevada Supreme Court, he did so in opposition to the Reno legal establishment that, according to him, had historically been kingmakers to the court. When he won the seat by “outworking” his opponent, it was a surprise to the “silk-stocking set.” In 1989, after eighteen years on the bench, with thousands of cases under his belt, and having been instrumental in creating the Nevada Judges Foundation, Justice Gunderson retired.
Justice Gunderson’s tenure on Nevada’s highest court (1971-1989), according to journalist Brian Greenspun, was during “some of its darkest days when national attention was focused on Nevada justice run amok.” His battles with the Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission became legend in the state and national press of the day. In his oral history, Justice Gunderson does not shy away from controversy or controversial opinions. Another Las Vegas journalist, John L. Smith, described him as “an almost mythical American character come to life, a pugnacious courthouse colossus who, as chief justice. . . never ducked a donnybrook and meted out Nevada-style justice honorably and with either fist.”
Upon Justice Gunderson’s death, U. S. Senator Harry Reid said that no one was tougher, funnier, or worked harder than he did. In his time on the bench, Senator Reid said that Gunderson “steered it away from elitism and shaped it as a forum for everyday Nevadans.” Praised by some, vilified by others, Justice “Al” Gunderson’s place in Nevada legal history is unique.
For readers who are interested in examining the unaltered records, copies of the recorded interviews are available in the Special Collections department of the UNR Library.
Patrick Carlton conducted this oral history interview with retired Nevada Supreme Court Justice E. M. “Al” Gunderson on December 4, 2002, at Gunderson’s home in Las Vegas, Nevada as part of the Nevada Legal Oral History Project, a joint effort of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society (NJCHS), the Nevada Judicial Historical Society (NJHS), and the UNOHP. Begun in 2001, the project was intended to record the life stories of leading members of Nevada’s legal profession and to educate the public about law and the courts by making those stories widely available through various media.
Members of the boards of NJHS and NJCHS compiled and vetted lists of potential narrators, ultimately selecting representatives from both the state and federal benches and bars. The UNOHP, under the direction of Tom King and his successor Mary Larson, recommended interviewers, most of whom were professional oral historians, and donated equipment and transcription services. Brad Williams, of NJCHS, coordinated the project from its inception. Susan Southwick, of NJHS, oversaw that group’s participation. Patricia Cooper-Smith completed the copyediting and introductions. Alicia Barber, Director of the UNOHP since 2009, supervised the project’s final publication and dissemination. The project was made possible by a generous challenge grant from the John Ben Snow Memorial Trust, with matching funds provided by the U.S. District Court for Nevada Attorney Admissions Fund, the Washoe County Courthouse Preservation Fund, and the Nevada State Bar. Thanks go to Susan Southwick and the Board of Trustees of NJHS, and to Patrick Carlton, who interviewed Justice Gunderson.
Interviewee: E. M. “Al” Gunderson
Interviewer: Patrick Carlton
UNOHP Catalog #226
This introduction is reprinted with permission from the University of Nevada Oral History Archive, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Nevada, Reno. The full oral history transcript was created for the Nevada Legal Oral History Project. Click here for the full oral history transcript.
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