Minnesota Law

Summer 2021
Faculty Focus

Prof. Orfield’s Minnesota Law Roots Stretch Back Over a Century

The Orfields Have a Long Legacy of Performing Public-Policy Work for the State, Nation, and World

Professor Myron Orfield (left);  his great uncle Matthias Orfield '12 (upper right); and his uncle and mentor Lestor Orfield '27 (bottom right)

Someone from the Law School’s Law Library called up Professor Myron Orfield a few years back asking if he was related to Matthias Orfield, a 1912 Minnesota Law graduate whose papers the library had recently acquired. It turns out that Matthias Orfield, who had been deputy attorney general of Minnesota  and later an assistant attorney general of the United States, was Myron’s great uncle. The papers were filled with fascinating details about Matthias’s life and career as a public servant. “Both my grandfathers were born in Norway, but Matthias was the first [family member] born in the United States,” says Myron Orfield. 

Matthias served two presidents (FDR and Truman). He had a distinguished legal career, briefing the landmark 1934 case Home Building & Loan Assn. v. Blaisdell, 290 U.S. 398 (1934), which upheld Minnesota’s Mortgage Moratorium Law (enacted to reduce foreclosures on homes during the Great Depression) and arguing Minnesota v. National Tea (309 U.S. 551) before the U.S. Supreme Court. “The Blaisdell case was one of the first times that New Deal principles were upheld by the U S Supreme Court,” and National Tea was a very important taxation case, says Orfield. 

Knighted in Norway

Myron Orfield’s uncle Lester Orfield, who graduated from Minnesota Law in 1927, was one of the nation’s most influential scholars in the field of criminal law, helping to draft the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. “Lester’s scholarly research was often cited by the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts” says Orfield, “and his treatise Criminal Procedure Under the Federal Rules (1967), currently in its second editionremains in print and influential.” 

Lester Orfield was a drafter of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure

Lester Orfield later wrote an internationally-renowned treatise, The Growth of Scandinavian Law (1953), that resulted in his being knighted by the King of Norway in 1957. As Myron Orfield explains, “Lester was given one of the highest honors in Norway, Knight First Class of the Order of Saint Olav, which today isn’t even given to non-citizens of Norway.” Lester would also become a mentor to nephew Myron.

The Legacy Lives On

Myron Orfield grew up steeped in the progressive values and civic-mindedness of the Orfield family. While serving in the Minnesota legislature, Myron spearheaded fair housing legislation. Later, he served on the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, as an academic advisor to the Congressional Black Caucus, and as an advisor to President Barack Obama’s transition team. During Obama’s presidency, Orfield helped the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Justice Department draft fair housing rules to strengthen the government's power to address residential segregation.

Orfield is currently the director of the Law School’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, which investigates how laws, policies and practices affect development patterns in U.S. metropolitan areas, with a particular focus on social and economic disparities. The IMO’s mission of connecting academic research to public policy-making is clearly aligned with the Orfield legacy. 

“Part of what I take from my family is a strong belief that evidence and research should matter for making public policy.”
Professor Myron Orfield

“Part of what I take from my family is a strong belief that evidence and research should matter for making public policy,” says Orfield. His current research focuses on some of the nation’s toughest policy issues, including school desegregation, fair housing, and criminal justice reform.

Myron Orfield has inherited an abiding faith in reason and a clear mission: “The Orfields came here from Norway as immigrants looking for equal opportunity. Matthias advocated against powerful interests like monopolies and banks, and on behalf of farmers and working people. Lester sought to strengthen the constitutional rights of the accused. Today, we need to continue working to protect equal opportunity for all, especially for new immigrants. The University of Minnesota Law School allowed my family not only to become Americans, but also to participate in shaping the legal system of their new country. Today’s immigrants need to have the same opportunities that my family had.”

—Chuck Leddy is a Boston-based freelance writer