Q&A with the Hon. Nancy B Firestone – 2017 School of Law Alumni Achievement Award Winner

In the Fall 2017 issue of Res Ipsa, our alumni magazine, we interviewed the Hon. Nancy B. Firestone, who is the 2017 School of Law Alumni Achievement Award Winner.

The year was 1974, American society was in a state of flux, and a young woman — one of only 15 women in her class of 165 students — found her life’s inspiration at the UMKC School of Law.

Why did you choose to study at UMKC?

Hon. Nancy Firestone (J.D. ’77): I had hoped to be a teacher, but jobs were scarce and schools were actually closing. To support myself, I began selling magazines door-to- door and worked at a book store. Those jobs taught me how hard it is to live on minimum wage. I chose UMKC because at the time it had a larger number of women enrolled — 15 in the incoming class — than the other public university in Missouri. We were a minority, but not invisible. It also helped that I fell in love with Kansas City and to this day enjoy coming back to visit.

Why did you choose a law career in the public sector?

While in law school I took a job as a legal intern in the Kansas City, Kansas U.S. Attorney’s Office. It provided me with hands-on experience — the most effective teacher there is — and a real-life connection to the mission of the law. I knew from that experience I wanted to work for the Department of Justice when I graduated from law school.

Did your prior experience working with the Environmental Protection Agency help guide you to your current role as a judge on the Court of Federal Claims?

My interest in environmental law started at UMKC. When I began law school in 1974, environmental law was a brand-new field. Congress had just passed the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. There were very few schools teaching classes on the new

environmental statutes. Environmental law is fascinating, because not only is protection of  the environment of fundamental importance for human health and welfare, but the practice of environmental law requires attorneys to develop an understanding of economics, statistics and complex scientific issues. The practice of environmental law was a great training ground for my ultimate career as a judge. It taught me the importance of understanding opposing points of view and reflecting that understanding when choosing among policy options, writing a brief or deciding a case.

The Court of Federal Claims has been referred to as “the People’s Court.” Why is the role of this court important?

My proudest professional achievement has been my appointment by President Bill Clinton to the United States Court of Federal Claims. The court is the clearinghouse for most monetary claims brought by citizens against their government. It is the responsibility of the judges on the court to analyze the government’s actions and make sure that the government settles up when it has breached a contract, violated a money-mandating statute or regulation, or is liable under a Constitutional provision. The court’s mission was best summarized by President Abraham Lincoln who said in 1863, “It is as much the duty of government to render prompt justice against itself, in favor of citizens, as it is to administer the same between private parties.” In 2016, nearly 2,000 cases were filed before the court and the court issued judgments totaling close to $1 billion.

What are your guiding principles when you take on a case?

The most important aspect  of my job is to make sure that the plaintiffs are given a full and fair opportunity to present their case. It is critically important for citizens suing their government to know their claims will be carefully considered and the law will be faithfully applied.

Published: Jan 8, 2018