William D. Stiehl Sr., the judge in many of the metro-east’s most important federal trials, passed away Monday night. He was 90.
Stiehl died after a short illness, according to an announcement by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Michael Reagan. A family member confirmed his passing.
Reagan said, “Judge Stiehl was a consummate judge and public servant who treated everyone with dignity, respect and compassion.”
Stiehl, a Republican, was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, based at the East St. Louis courthouse, on May 14, 1986, by President Ronald Reagan.
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Born in Belleville, Stiehl was in the United States Navy as a lieutenant during World War II. He obtained his law degree after the war and then was recalled to duty during the Korean War, during which he was part of the United Nations team that negotiated the end to armed conflict. He was in private practice in Belleville from 1952 to 1986, including a stint as an assistant state’s attorney. He was a special assistant Illinois attorney general from 1970 to 1973.
U.S. District Judge David R. Herndon, who worked with Stiehl for 17 years, said Stiehl “was wonderful.”
“I enjoyed very much working with him,” Herndon said. “He was a great, great man, a great person to talk to.”
St. Louis attorney Tom Kennedy has argued cases before Stiehl on many occasions, but one that stands out for him is the case of Charles Baxter versus the city of Belleville.
Kennedy filed a lawsuit in 1989 on Baxter’s behalf, with Baxter claiming that his rights under the Fair Housing Act and the Fourteenth Amendment had been violated by the city of Belleville refusing to grant him a permit to open housing for people with HIV/AIDS.
“He wanted to open a hospice for (terminally ill) people with HIV/AIDS,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy recalled Stiehl’s personality.
“We went in front of Judge Stiehl, and no one would ever say he was a liberal. On his first day on the bench he went to a Boy Scout prayer marathon,” Kennedy said, chuckling.
Kennedy won the case for Baxter.
“This was at the height of the hysteria about HIV/AIDS. He was wonderful ... really wonderful,” Kennedy said.
Stiehl found that “the public interest can best be served if discriminatory actions based on irrational fears, piecemeal information and pernicious mythologies are refrained.”
Julie Fix Meyer, Stiehl’s senior law clerk, started with Stiehl on Aug. 29, 1986, the day he started on the federal bench. She remained with him until he retired Jan. 31, 2014.
“The world is a little less bright today with the passing of Judge Stiehl. All of us who worked with him are very saddened,” Meyer said.
She added, “We lost a great man. He was wise — a quiet strength with the courage of his conviction. That conviction was, he always believed in doing the right thing, even when it wasn’t the popular thing.”
Stiehl was proud of what he was able to do to help the people of East St. Louis and Brooklyn through the Greater East St. Louis Community Fund that he started in 1991. Stiehl established the fund in a judgment against a criminal defendant who was found guilty of fraud. Originally the fund benefited only East St. Louis. But a year later, after another defendant was found guilty of fraud, the fund grew.
The defendants issued fraudulent bonds in East St. Louis.
Stiehl imposed a community service penalty of $7 million and established the Greater East St. Louis Community Fund, a nonprofit, apolitical fund. The fund looks for projects that involve a broad base of community organizations working together to yield a comprehensive approach to benefit East St. Louis residents. The fund focuses on projects that can be used as catalysts to create a broad, sustainable impact on East St. Louis and Brooklyn residents. The fund has provided many scholarships to youth from East St. Louis and Brooklyn — about $2 million worth.
Stiehl was a federal judge on the United States District Court for the Southern District of Illinois. He assumed senior status on November 30, 1996.
He had two children, Bill Stiehl Jr. and Susan Guthrie. Stiehl’s widow, Celese Stiehl, served as a state representative.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Carolyn P. Smith: 618-239-2503