Soon after Edwin J. Peterson became chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court in 1983, he spoke before a local bar association. His topic was professionalism, and how he 'saw a declining level of civility in the bar.' From the group’s reaction to the speech, it was obvious his theme had struck a chord.
A formal article by him in the Oregon State Bar Bulletin followed, the piece was reprinted several times nationally, and a result was, 'I was identified early on with the importance of lawyers acting in a professional way,' recalls Peterson, who retired from the court in 1993. His dedication to that theme expanded in several directions, and for the past two decades he has strived to make professionalism and the law synonymous. In recognition of that commitment, Peterson this month is the first recipient of the Joint Bench/Bar Commission on Professionalism’s Edwin J. Peterson Award.
'I’ll be the first to agree that the term ‘professionalism’ is an ambiguous one,' says Peterson, who nowadays is a distinguished jurist in residence at Willamette University College of Law in Salem. 'I think that the heart of professionalism is that lawyers are courteous, civil, prompt — to their adversaries and their clients.'
Although he thinks being professional is its own reward, he also has a story to illustrate that it can pay concrete returns for a practitioner. During his 22 years as an attorney handling defense litigation, Peterson tried cases all around the state. If he was facing a lawyer he did not know, he would go to the opposing lawyer’s office in person beforehand. He also treated the plaintiff as courteously as his own client.
He remembers a particular case, on product liability, in which he won initially and again on appeal. A couple of years after the case concluded, he was fishing and accidentally caught a fly hook in his ear. He remembered that the plaintiff in that case lived nearby where he was fishing — and that the plaintiff’s wife was a nurse. So he knocked on the couple’s door and asked for medical assistance, which the woman unhesitatingly supplied. A tribute to her magnanimity, yes, but Peterson is convinced her actions also were a result of the way he had conducted himself in the case, and how he had treated his opponents.
Peterson’s path to the top of the legal profession began inconspicuously. Born in a tiny farming community in Wisconsin, he was asthmatic and the son of a creamery manager. Neither of his parents finished high school. The family moved to Oregon when Ed was 14. When entering college at the University of Oregon, he chose music as a major but also had an interest in the law, mainly because he liked politics and noticed that many in that field were lawyers. Once he had been in law school for a couple of years, he knew he had chosen the right direction. He took his first job with a Portland firm, where he remained from 1957 until he was appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court in 1979 by Gov. Vic Atiyeh.
Peterson enjoys telling how he got that second job, because he thinks it reflects well on Oregon. When he heard that a justice was going to retire, Peterson submitted his name to the OSB’s poll for consideration. Having never served on the bench, he found he polled behind others who had experience as judges, though he led among the lawyers seeking the seat. He did not know Atiyeh, and the governor didn’t call Peterson until the morning he offered him the seat.
He heard later that Atiyeh had said his first priority was to name 'a lawyer in private practice who had extensive courtroom experience,' says Peterson. He had that inspades, and that was all the governor wanted to know; Atiyeh never even asked what Peterson’ party registration was. The nonpartisan nature of his selection 'illustrates a good, honest appointment system, unlike (in) a lot of other states,' Peterson says. 'Most other governors have followed that process, which has made for a good judiciary in this state.'
Perhaps because he had not served as a judge before coming to the court, Peterson had no entrenched notions and could see where changes needed to be made. For instance, he learned during his time as a lawyer that each of Oregon’s 36 counties had its own separate rules. He would call ahead for those before trying a case in a new county, so as not to be 'bushwhacked,' as he puts it. But once hisfellow justices selected him chief, he set out to change the 'silly' fact that each county differed in its court rules.
'There ought to be one set of rules uniform across the state,' he declared, a position his wife, who worked at the UO Law School, noted was popular with no one practicing or presiding in the entire state. 'Lawyers and judges almost to a person said this was blasphemy, you shouldn’t meddle with our local rules,' Peterson remembers. 'But I stuck to my guns.' He appointed a panel to develop uniform rules, and many disbelievers later recanted, telling him, 'Pete, I was wrong.'
'I confess that when I pick up the Oregon Rules of Court, it warms my heart to see the Uniform Trial Court Rules are there in a prominent place,' Peterson allows.'One of the things I’ve learned is that some of the most important things you do are unpopular actions' at the time. During his tenure, Peterson also instituted committees of plaintiff and defense lawyers, and prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers, to cooperate in reducing trial delays and in improving the dispute resolution process. He instituted statewide arbitration programs, and personally still performs arbitrations.
He emphasizes that the changes during his tenure resulted from his insistence on including lawyers, and not just judges, in making decisions. 'I believe a successful judicial system requires ongoing communications and cooperation between the bench and the bar,' he says.Peterson has received numerous other awards in his career, including the Lewis F. Powell Jr. Award for Professionalism and Ethics (American Inns of Court), at the U.S. Supreme Court; the American Inns of Court Professionalism Award for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court; the Judge Mercedes Diez Award for Outstanding Contributions in Promoting Minorities in the Legal Profession and in the Community and the OSB’s Award of Merit.
He long has enjoyed outdoor sports and counts his two primary avocations as music — he plays piano and French horn — and chess, which he enjoys both playing and teaching. Peterson cites two chess skills that readily apply to law: Think and plan before you act, and don’t let your errors overwhelm you, because everybody makes mistakes sometimes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins, a Portland-area freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to the OSB Bulletin.
© 2003 Cliff Collins