The life of Harry Eugene Claiborne had many chapters, from rural McRae, Arkansas to the neon lights of Las Vegas, Nevada. From his years as a rural farm boy who started a rabbit business at ten to a federal judgeship, imprisonment, and impeachment for tax evasion by the U. S. Senate, his was a varied life that eventually put him in the crosshairs of a federal Strike Force investigating and prosecuting organized crime.
At 84 years of age, Mr. Claiborne recalls his life and career with clarity, insight, goodwill, and the humor of a skilled comedian with perfect timing. Explaining the “Claiborne mythology,” a term employed by Brian Greenspun, is a high bar. Like his adopted state of Nevada, Mr. Claiborne was resilient and fiercely independent. His memories of his childhood, law school, the military, law enforcement, early Las Vegas, and establishing a larger-than-life career as a criminal defense attorney, come across with sincerity and humanity.
Mr. Claiborne’s oral history is a moving target in subject, time, and place, yet his stories of being a lawyer-advocate for the powerful and the powerless are recalled in detail. Many recollections include vibrant and provocatively enticing side-stories and anecdotes. Topics discussed within the oral history are not limited to those listed in the chapter titles. In the end, Mr. Claiborne had defenders and detractors, but few voiced an opinion that he was not one of Nevada’s most gifted criminal defense attorneys.
For the reader looking for a contextual telling of the Harry Claiborne story, there is J. Bruce Alverson’s Flamboyant Lawyer in a Maverick Western Town: Las Vegas through the Eyes of Harry Claiborne, (Las Vegas, Nevada: J. Bruce Alverson, Alverson Taylor Mortensen & Sanders, 2011). Alverson, a historian and lawyer, looks at Harry Claiborne’s life during a tumultuous time when Las Vegas and Nevada were emerging from a “good ole boy” patronage system into corporate dominance.
Harry Claiborne’s story begs the question: Where and how do you separate the man from the myth? Mr. Claiborne’s oral history, in his “Arky,” folksy, at times grammatically incorrect and often profane words, and Alverson’s analysis are a start. Mr. Claiborne’s fall from a federal judgeship to prison and U.S. Senate impeachment is also a story about Nevada—the story of a frontier, in some minds a “rogue” state, that for many years had been left to its own devices, for good and bad. Alverson refers to the “Claiborne era” spanning the years from the end of World War II to 1978, a time when “Las Vegas did what it wanted without much federal intervention.... Political corruption was rampant.” That was all about to change.
During his Senate impeachment hearing, Mr. Claiborne said, “Somewhere, someplace, someone is going to take the time to listen to my story.” Now may be the time. Following his release from prison, Harry Claiborne returned to Las Vegas and continued the practice of law. Attempts to disbar him by the State Bar of Nevada failed. He died in 2004.
J. Bruce Alverson conducted oral history interviews with Harry Eugene Claiborne (1917-2004) in 2002 and 2003 at Mr. Alverson’s office 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 J. Bruce Alverson, who interviewed Harry E. Claiborne.
Interviewee: Harry Eugene Claiborne
Interviewer: J. Bruce Alverson
UNOHP Catalog #230
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.
None at this time.