In the courtroom where Mills Lane presides, there always comes that point when the bantam rooster on the bench—the district court judge known in northern Nevada as Maximum Mills—has heard and seen enough of the little human drama playing out before him. The signs of his discontent are unmistakable. He begins to fuss and fidget in his high-backed chair, twisting in his seat, drawing a hand over his bald and shaved pate, nibbling on a stem of his reading glasses. A scowl, like a shadow, crosses his face, and he leans forward. In his chambers behind him, among the artifacts that symbolize his life—the brass scales of justice that sit on a shelf near a miniature wooden gallows, complete with hangman's rope dangling from it—is a can of aerosol spray, smack in the middle of his desk, the most prominent and telling display of all. The label reads BULLSHIT REPELLENT. He carries that with him, metaphorically speaking, wherever he goes—from the violent confines of professional prizefighting rings, where he has become one of the most respected referees in boxing, to Department 9 of the Washoe County Courthouse in Reno, where he lectures, warns and punishes while keeping dueling lawyers apart. You know he is about to reach for the can when he leans forward at the bench and his voice, a raspy high-pitched twang, rises in the room.
As it did one day last week when a young man in custody stood before him in cuffs and confessed to Lane he had a drug problem. Lane wagged a finger at him. "It's not a drug problem," he said. "And it's not cuz your daddy yelled at ya. It's not cuz you weren't breast fed. It's not cuz your mama didn't change your diapers. It's none of these things. Your problem is you! And until you get it together, these problems will follow you."
Or, as it did one morning in early July when, to the astonishment of the Reno legal community, Lane decided to terminate a jury trial just as attorney Jerome Polaha was winding up his defense. Polaha's client, a young male assistant nurse, had been accused by two female colleagues of gross lewdness, a misdemeanor, but after listening to a parade of defense character witnesses—including one elderly woman who said that the defendant was the only man she had ever allowed to bathe her—Lane began to drum his fingers and rub his head. Looking down at the prosecution, Lane said, "I do not believe there's sufficient evidence to convict this defendant beyond a reasonable doubt. That's what I believe in my gut, in my heart and in my soul." Besides, even if the jury had found him guilty, Lane says, he would have set aside the verdict and freed the man. So, he thought, why waste everyone's time and subject the young man to further prosecution? Just like that, with a spray of his aerosol, the trial was over.
"In 30 years of practice I've never seen a judge do that," says Polaha.
"Nothing that Mills does surprises me anymore," says Washoe County district attorney Richard Gammick.
Mills Bee Lane III referees prizefights in roughly the same way he runs a courtroom. In both worlds he is precise, passionate and decisive, and never more so as a ref than he has been this year. In three heavyweight championship bouts, faced with some of the strangest behavior ever seen in a prizefight, Lane ended each bout by disqualifying one of the boxers. He waved the Feb. 7 fight between Oliver McCall and Lennox Lewis to a stop in the fifth round when a mentally troubled McCall, crying and dazed, walked around the ring and refused to defend himself. On June 28 Lane halted the rematch between WBA champion Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson at the end of the third round after determining that Tyson, who had already been warned for biting Holyfield's right ear, had bitten Holyfield's left ear less than a minute later. Two weeks after that, Lane disqualified contender Henry Akinwande for holding Lewis, in effect for refusing to fight. "I don't have the vocabulary to describe what has happened this year," Lane says. "It's been crazy, nutty. It is bizarre."
Surely no referee is better suited for weathering the winds of the boxing world, with all its swirling controversies, than Lane, a 59-year-old former NCAA welterweight boxing champ with a permanently smashed potato of a nose, a bulldog drive and pugnacity that once made him the most feared prosecutor in Washoe County. He brings to the task a rare species of self-confidence, an unflinching sense of who he is and where he's going, that has governed his life since he was a boy. "You play the hand you are dealt and do the best with it you can," says Lane, an avid hold-'em poker player at the Club Cal-Neva casino in downtown Reno.
He was not dealt a bad one. Lane grew up on a 13,000-acre plantation in South Carolina, where his father raised cattle and timber. Mills III was the oldest of five children whose grandfather Mills Bee Lane owned the largest bank in Georgia. Mills III attended Middlesex School in Concord, Mass., and one of his three brothers recalls Mills Ill's making a boxing match between two quarreling boys when he was 18—and then, as referee, stepping in to halt it in the first minute.
"Why did you stop it?" asked the onlookers, jeering.
"No contest!" yelled young Mills. "One guy's too good for the other."