February 2012 Bar Bulletin
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February 2012 Bar Bulletin

How It Used To Be: The Supreme Court's Law Clerks

 

In December, we concluded John Rupp's history of the Seattle-King County Bar Association. This month, we launch a new series, also written by Mr. Rupp, in which he recalled his stint as one of the first law clerks to the Washington Supreme Court. Again, we present it unedited, as he wrote it. The editor wishes to thank his colleague Ken Rekow for discovering this old jewel and dusting it off for publication in these pages. Mr. Rupp typed out this opus in March 1977; so, the story begins in 1937. Enjoy.

(First in a Series)

Our learned brother Jack Cham­pagne, the Clerk of the Supreme Court of Washington, tells me that he is compiling a record of those who have been law clerks for the judges. The thought took me back to the time, nearly 40 years ago, when I was one of the Court's first three law clerks and moved me to set down this memoir on how it used to be.

To those accustomed to the modern, and salutary, practice of practically every judge's having a law clerk it may seem odd to learn that the custom is comparatively new and that as recently as the 1930's a law clerk in this State was a rare bird indeed. Our Supreme Court judges did not have them, neither did the Superior Court judges and I think that the Federal District Court judges did not. It just wasn't done.

Why it was not I cannot say, for certainly the advantages of the present system are many and obvious. Law clerks were surely not unknown in the country, and the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States had employed them for years. As a minor historical note, I point out that Oliver Wendell Holmes became a member of that court in 1902 and that his first law clerk there was Charles K. Poe, later the head of the Seattle law firm of Poe, Falknor, Emory & Howe, and the father-in-law of Judge William J. Lindberg.

Anyway, our Supreme Court started its law-clerk program in 1937. I never knew who was the father of the idea, nor do I know whether all the judges favored it. The proponents evidently persuaded the Legislature that it was a sound proposal, and reference to the Session Laws shows that the Court's biennial salary appropriation in 1937 was $29,800 greater than that made in 1935. Perhaps $14,900 for a full year doesn't sound like much to us now, but in 1937 you could hire as many as seven fine, young law clerks for it and still make all the law firms mad at you for grossly inflating the salary market. Imagine paying a young squirt fresh out of law school $175 a month — $2,100 a year! (The figures seem bizarre now, but one must remember that you could buy a good lunch for 25 cents and a comfortable house for about $4,500.)

Chief Justice William J. Steinert was one of those willing to try this law-clerk experiment, and he asked Dean Judson F. Falknor of the University of Washington School of Law for recommendations for a clerk to start work when the September session opened. I should like to report that Jud Falknor recommended me because of his rare perception in recognizing fine character, but I suspect that he was more statistical about it than that and that he did so because I was the high man in the senior class and the editor of the law review. At any rate, I was offered the job, and I accepted with alacrity. Oh, boy! A job!

That was in about May of 1937. Of course, there was the little matter of the Bar Examination. Judge Steinert hadn't said that he wouldn't have me if I flunked, but neither had he said that he would, and I was too scared to raise the point. Libby and I wanted to get married, but in those days you didn't get married unless you had a job. So it looked like No passee, no jobee, no wifee. (I think that Libby would probably have waited, but it would have been embarrassing to have had to say, "Well, honeypot, we can't get married yet because, after three solid years of studying law, I couldn't pass the bar exam.")

Anyway, in August I learned that I had passed, Libby and I were married on August 31, and on the day after Labor Day I reported for work in Olympia.

We even had a house to live in! Judge Mack F. Gose, who had left the Supreme Court in 1915, lived with his daughter, Mrs. Charles McCleary, rather than in his own house across the street at 104 Sherman Street. So he let us have his house for a wedding present. It was up on the west side across from the old St. Peters Hospital, and about a mile and a half from the Temple of Justice.

We had no car, but it was an easy walk. Hills weren't so steep in 1937. After about three months of free rent we told Judge Gose that we should be paying rent; so he started charging us $15 per month. When we'd pay him he would thank us profusely, saying that his creditors would be happy. The fact was that he had miles of wheat land and his creditors weren't worried at all.

I reported for work and was shown around. There were two other law clerks already on board. Ernest Howard Campbell, who had been a year ahead of me in school, was law clerk for Judges O.R. Holcomb and Warren W. Tolman. Judge Tolman was succeeded by Judge George B. Simpson on September 20, and Ernest then worked for Holcomb and Simpson. The other clerk was Robert Read who worked for Judges John S. Robinson and James M. Geraghty.

Bob was an "older man" who seemed quite venerable to Ernest and me. Looking back, I suppose that he was perhaps 45 years old. He had practiced law in a Seattle firm and had been hired by Judge Robinson. Bob stayed with the Court for a long time, indeed I think that he was still a law clerk when he retired. A fine man and a dedicated worker.

We three law clerks shared a single room, just to the right as you enter the room outside the Chief Justice's chambers. It overlooked the parking area behind the Temple of Justice. Judge John F. Main parked his Ford V-8 there, and a regular source of entertainment was watching Judge Main start his car. He would start the engine and let it warm up. When he had it going well he would get it up to a noble roar, put the transmission in low gear and then snappily engage the clutch. The car would take off with a great series of jolts and jerks and go buckety buckety out of the parking lot. Judge Main was a careful and meticulous man, and we assumed that he must have killed a cold engine once and wasn't going to let it happen again.

Our next door neighbor was Donald McDonald, the Court's bailiff. He did double duty as the Chief Justice's secretary — the only male amanuensis on the premises. Don was a tall, lean, courtly man, very courteous to everyone and always very kind and helpful to me.

To the left of Don McDonald's office were the Chief Justice's chambers. All the judges' chambers in the Temple of Justice are properly baronial in size, but those of the Chief are particularly stately. I was told that the main room had done duty as the court room before the regular court room was completed. Behind it was a smaller conference room which Judge Steinert used as a working office. He had had constructed over the full length of the conference table a lighting fixture using the then new-fangled tubular fluorescent lamps. His eyesight was poor, and he needed lots of light. And the regular lighting in most of the building was pretty poor.

The court room was the same size and shape as it is now but over the years since then the lighting has been much improved. The lighting was so poor then and so badly directed that three or four of the judges wore green eyeshades while on the bench. It gave the Court a rather raffish appearance. I remember Libby's shock when she first saw them sitting up there. She had never seen a court in session, and I suppose that she had a mental picture of nine robed figures, each with the Jovian appearance of Charles Evans Hughes. Green eyeshades! My God!

Down at the other end of the building was the clerk's office, presided over by the Hon. Benj. T. Hart, a cheerful efficient, smallish man who was grey all over — grey suit, grey hair, grey eyes. I think that Ben Hart had been the clerk of the Superior Court for King County, but of that I am not sure. So far as I was concerned, he had been our Court's clerk since the beginning of time. I remember that he lived in a Dutch colonial house across Columbia Street from the Capitol campus — where the Administration Building's parking garage now is.

Ben's deputy was Archie B. Stewart, a genial fellow with whom I became very friendly. Archie and his wife, May, lived near us on the west side of Olympia, and we used to spend occasional evenings together. As years went by, Archie had some trouble with his hips or legs which made walking hard for him, but in those days he was agile as a cat.

There was one other person in the clerk's office, a lady whose name I cannot recall. Indeed, I am ashamed to say that I cannot remember the names of several of the ladies on the Court's staff. I think that the cause of this lack of memory is that I didn't work with them. I do remember Miss Wiggins and Miss Shumah Quigley, who were secretaries to the judges, but after that I am blank. I cannot recall whether each judge had a private secretary; I think that some did and that there were other cases where one secretary worked for two judges.

 

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