In their own words: Horacio Wheelock | Crime


Job Title: Douglas County District Court Judge

What drew you to a career in law?

Most of our citizens may only have one contact with our legal system. As an attorney and as a judge I have the opportunity to make those experiences as positive and dignified as possible for every person who appears before me. I immigrated from a country with little rule of law and it is inspiring every day to be a part of this great country’s system of law and justice.

Overcoming the educational challenge of being raised in a Spanish-speaking home and the cultural shock of leaving Nicaragua under duress, I went on to attend Spring Hill College, a small Jesuit school in Mobile, Alabama, where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Finance/Economics and with a Master’s degree in Business Administration. Driven by my own personal journey through our immigration legal system I obtained my Juris Doctorate from Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, Nebraska, graduating cum laude in 2002.

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My personal journey of immigrating to the United States and going through our immigration system has given me an appreciation for our legal system, great admiration for this country, and in particular the great state of Nebraska. My positive experiences have bolstered me as an attorney and as a judge to effectively administer justice in the most unbiased and fair manner possible, applying the rule of law to the facts as they are presented to me.

Was there a person or experience that inspired you?

My personal immigration journey inspired me to become an attorney. In 1979, when I was 4 years old, my family and I were forced to flee Nicaragua due to a civil war between the Somoza and Sandinista regimes. My family lost everything in the war. My family and I traveled to El Salvador, where the war followed us. Six months later, we moved to Guatemala. A year later, we traveled to the United States and entered at the port of entry of Miami International Airport on B-1/B-2 visas and it was there that my path toward United States citizenship commenced.

My father and mother filed for asylum in the United States. My sister and I were included in their asylum petition for relief. Several years later, the asylum individual hearing was heard before an immigration judge in Houston, Texas. When I was in the fifth grade, I became a legal permanent resident of the United States, and as a junior in high school with great gratitude, I became a United States citizen.

My long immigration journey inspired me to become an attorney. As an attorney and as a Judge I do not take for granted the freedom and liberties that are afforded to us in the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Nebraska. In the United States of America we are all given equal opportunity to become anything that we desire to become.

How long have you been working in Nebraska? Do you plan to stay?

I am a graduate of Creighton Law School in Omaha, Nebraska, and I have been working in Nebraska since 2003. As a proud adoptive son of the great state of Nebraska, I plan to stay in Nebraska. My enthusiasm for the law that developed during my formative legal career portended what became a true passion for upholding the laws of our country and the State of Nebraska and for ensuring that all are citizens are heard, properly represented, and treated with respect, dignity, and with the implementation of good manners. All persons who appear before me are treated equally.

After graduating from Creighton Law School in Omaha, my first practicing position as an attorney was in Miami, Florida, where I served as an Assistant State Attorney in Dade County prosecuting criminal cases. After marrying my wife, we moved back to Omaha so she could pursue her medical residency. In Omaha, I served as a public defender in the Douglas County Public Defender’s Office and then worked with a private immigration attorney, after which time I opened my own private law office.

My private practice consisted of criminal defense in state and federal courts, immigration removal defense, family based immigration, employment based immigration, and civil litigation. I spent considerable time in federal court defending drug, immigration-based criminal, white collar immigration-based criminal, white collar criminal, and agricultural criminal cases. While in private practice, I was selected to the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panel in both Nebraska and Iowa where I had the opportunity to represent indigent citizens accused in the federal court system.

On Sept. 11, 2015, I was appointed as a District Judge on the Nebraska Douglas County District Court bench by Governor Pete Ricketts. As a judge, I preside over numerous criminal and civil jury trials and many criminal, civil, and domestic bench trials. My caseload averages over 400 pending matters. The cases include domestic relations, felony criminal matters, civil cases, and appeals from the county court and various administrative agencies.

As a judge, I gain knowledge with every case over which I preside. I have dedicated myself to giving exceptional customer service and to improving the administration of justice by making the courtroom more user-friendly for self-represented litigants and attorneys. I want all of our citizens to have access to the courts and access to me. The attorneys who practice before me know that I love helping them resolve their cases and that I am available to them seven days a week. I have held hearings in the early morning hours, late into the evening, and even on weekends. The attorneys know that I routinely respond to emails on nights and weekends. As a private practitioner for over ten years before becoming a judge I understand the demands and the stress of private practice. The least I can do as a public servant is make myself available to our wonderful citizens.

During my tenure as presiding judge, I ensured that the Douglas County District Court remained open during the pandemic and that our citizens continued to have safe access to justice through the implementation and use of new technology. I have seen many changes to the legal field occur in my 20 year legal career, and while I cannot foresee what new challenges may lie ahead, I am committed to serving the people of Nebraska and ensuring that the justice system continues to function for them.

Is diversity important in the judicial system and if so, why?

Like any public servant who has the honor of wearing the black robe of a judge, my personal beliefs and preferences are cloaked by that robe. I resolve issues based solely on the law and the facts presented to me in a timely manner issuing well-reasoned thoughtful orders. I am mindful that my decisions have immense impact on the lives of our citizens and I take great care in ensuring that the rule of law, not my own personal policy preferences, is followed in each case litigated before me. Any person who wears a judge’s robe is asked not only to set aside his or her personal opinions but also to consider and understand the perspective of every single litigant before the Court. I do not claim that my diverse life experiences make me more or less capable of dispensing impartial justice. However, when the bench as a whole is diverse, it makes everyone better at being a neutral and enlightened dispenser of justice.

Every day I learn from my colleagues with different life experiences, and I bring my personal story to our court’s persistent efforts to improve the administration of justice for everyone. My diverse personal and professional background allows me to understand the cultural challenges that affect persons of color and immigrants who appear before me.

Because my first language was Spanish, I understand the challenges of speaking English as a second language. I understand that idioms, colloquialisms, and language nuances create special problems for diverse individuals appearing before a judge who may control their immediate fate. My life experiences have enhanced my compassion for those who picture themselves on the outside without a friend in their hour of need. I go out of my way to ensure a fair process for all. I exercise patience and dedication to ensure that all persons regardless of race, ethnicity, or country of origin have full access to our court system. I always err on thoroughness and completeness and in making sure that all litigants are heard regardless of the language that they speak.

Every day, thousands of people dealing with myriad types of cases come through our courthouse doors. Our bench hears cases ranging from first-degree murder to airplane-related product litigation; we hear cases as intimate as custody battles and as broad as insurance litigation that impacts people all over the country. It is a humbling experience to be entrusted with hearing and deciding such wide-ranging disputes. Having respected colleagues from all walks of life is a great boon to the endeavor of justice.

What is one thing that can be done here to improve diversity among attorneys and judges?

The judiciary needs persons who are extraordinarily qualified, experienced, and devoted to the rule of the law, the Constitution of Nebraska, and the Constitution of the United States. There is no single solution to improving diversity in the legal system and it takes time, but we each can contribute to the principle of “aggregation of marginal gains.” As law schools, law firms, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys and jurors appreciate the contributions made by diverse people who each have a voice that needs to be heard, we each in our own way will do our own “one thing” to help remove barriers and open doors.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or [email protected].

On Twitter @LJSpilger

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