|Oregon State Bar Bulletin DECEMBER 2006|
By Janine Robben
When Wallace P. Carson Jr. retires from the Oregon Supreme Court at the end of this month, he will have served longer as chief justice than anyone in Oregon history.
But it’s not for his work in chambers that he will be best remembered by the judges and attorneys who worked under him. It will be for helping the court system through the funding crisis of 2003. For what Marion County Judge Mary Mertens James describes as "his consummate commitment to children whose lives intersect the judicial system." For personally attending virtually every judicial investiture around the state, not to mention numerous conferences and even the memorial service for an attorney’s war-widow mother. For answering his own phone after hours with what Court of Appeals Judge Ellen Rosenblum calls the "simple, reassuring response: ‘Wally Carson.’ "
Thomas Elden, past president of the Willamette Valley American Inn of Court, which successfully nominated Carson for a national award earlier this year, says it all comes down to character.
"His life overflows with character," says Elden, who was among 50 lawyers, judges and law students who wrote letters supporting Carson’s nomination. "To say he is loved and respected only touches the surface. He truly believes that to be a professional is a fulltime calling, (that) you do not become decent when you go to the office. His friendships and the effort he spends on those friendships and his selfless devotion to work are all the result, in my view, of simple decency."
Public service a family legacy
Carson’s life in public service did not begin when he became chief justice in 1991, a position he stepped down from on Dec. 31, 2005. (He will retire as a justice on Dec. 31, 2006.) He also has been a military pilot, a practicing lawyer, a state legislator, a state court judge and a state supreme court justice.
His father’s family, which came to Salem in 1889 from Canada, produced five children, all of whom obtained legal training. Four of them, including Carson’s father, became lawyers.
"Public service was just what my family did," says Carson. "No one ever told me I had to do it. My parents were role models."
In his senior year of high school, Carson met a player for the Stanford football team who so impressed him that he decided — "on a lark," he says — to apply to Stanford University.
"Of the 500 students in my class (at Salem High School), only eight of us took the SATs," he says. "Three of us got scholarships from Stanford."
Around the same time, Carson met the woman who was to become his wife of 50 years, Gloria Stolk.
"After I graduated from high school," he says, "I was swimming with friends at Olinger pool and I saw this gorgeous woman playing tennis. I said to my friends, ‘Maybe we ought to play more tennis.’ "
Carson says that he and Gloria — who had been a year behind him at Salem High — dated for the four years he was at Stanford. "I was home vacations, summers," he says. "But long distance romances are not easy."
Nonetheless, the couple’s relationship survived.
"I was commissioned on June 16, 1956; graduated on June 17 and married on June 24," he says. "I got very lucky; I married one of the nicest people in the world. She’s just been my anchor. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without her."
The newlywed Carsons moved to Texas, where Carson started pilot training; then to Tucson; and then back to Texas, where he received his pilot wings, graduating first in his class.
After completing his ground control interception training, Carson says, he "asked for West Coast radar sites. But the Air Force misunderstood. They thought I meant the West Coast of Korea."
So, once again, the couple was separated, with Carson serving in South Korea and the Far East in 1958-59, while his wife and their first two children were living with her parents in Salem.
Carson says that when he came home, he thought about attending Stanford Law School. "But I had no interest in practicing anywhere but here," he says, "so we decided to stay here."
Carson graduated from Willamette University College of Law in 1962. He went into private practice and, in 1967, began a career in the state legislature that included serving as House majority leader and Senate minority floor leader.
Then, in 1977, Carson says he decided to leave the legislature to "get serious about income for my family." He was appointed a Marion County Circuit Court judge later that same year by Gov. Bob Straub.
Somewhat surprisingly, Carson says his most-valuable preparation for becoming a judge was not having appeared before trial judges himself.
"If I had one trial a month, it was a pretty heavy month," he says. "It was having been a committee chair. You have a docket and rules, and you don’t advocate for anybody. Your job is to be impartial and fair and play by the rules."
Almost 25 years on the Supreme Court
In 1982, after five years on the Marion County bench, Carson was appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court by Gov. Vic Atiyeh. His colleagues on the bench elected him chief justice in 1991, a position in which he served longer than any other Oregon chief justice. He also served on the court longer than all but five of the 97 justices in Oregon history.
"I feel like I’m part of the building, I’ve been here so long," he says, meeting with visitors in an Oregon Supreme Court building conference room lined with oil portraits of his predecessors. "It’s been a good ride."
A good, hard ride, says Rosenblum, who was a Multnomah County judge and worked on committees with Carson before being appointed to the appellate court herself in 2005.
"There is no one who has done more for the justice system in Oregon in the past two decades than Wally Carson," she says. "I am honestly not sure that Justice Carson ever took more than a one- or two-day vacation during the 14 years he was chief justice. That is because he never felt comfortable being more than a ‘heartbeat’ away from the Capitol in case something came up for which he was needed."
Never was the need more pressing than in 2003, when a series of increasingly dire state budget forecasts and the failure of a tax measure required the Judicial Department — along with other state agencies — to reduce spending by 10 percent in the closing months of the biennium.
"I had been through cutbacks once before, as a Marion County judge," says Carson. "We went through a 20 percent staff reduction. My judicial assistant became my bailiff, and my wife came in and typed my correspondence. It was a little cottage industry. I got the experience of trying to run a courthouse with reduced staff, and it helped to show me that that wasn’t the course to follow."
So, when Carson faced the need to cut court costs statewide, he formed a 15-member committee to decide what to do.
"I was going to call it the Doomsday Committee," he quips, "but (state court administrator) Kingsley Click came up with ‘Budget Reduction Advisory Committee.’ "
The committee’s solution to avoiding layoffs was to have court staff work four 10-hour days and close all county courthouses on Fridays. In addition, the Judicial Department stopped paying public defenders for non-person crime misdemeanors between March 1, 2003 and the end of the biennium on June 30.
"It was a thin four months for indigent defense providers," Carson acknowledges. "I got sued. It wasn’t a very good time, but we didn’t have many options at the end of the biennium. Oregon has to have a balanced budget."
During his tenure as chief justice, Carson also had to deal with two other judicial crises: The destruction of the Klamath County Courthouse by an earthquake in 1993 and serious damage to the Marion County Courthouse in 2005 caused by a man who drove his vehicle into the building and then set fires there.
"We felt that we were his first priority when Wally helped us continue to operate after our courthouse was wrecked," says Klamath County Presiding Judge Cameron Wogan.
While Carson downplays his role in helping those counties — "I’m very proud of the judges and staff: in Klamath County, judges worked out of their cars" — similar stories about him abound.
"At my first judicial conference, I was quite surprised to see that the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court was in attendance," says Josephine County’s presiding judge, Lindi Baker. "I had worked as a staff attorney for the California Supreme Court in the ’80s and, even being on the chief’s staff, there were months at a time when I never even saw the chief justice of that court. Chief Carson not only attends these training conferences, he frequently presents at them and is present at each and every session, prominently sitting in the very first row."
Tom Elden, who knows Carson from the Inn of Court and from working near him in Salem, says that "When my war widow mom passed away last year, there was the chief justice at the memorial."
And Washington County’s presiding judge, Thomas Kohl, can brag about having been sworn in by the chief justice. "I’ve known Wally over 15 years," he says. "I felt very honored and blessed that the ‘chief’ would actually take time out of his busy schedule to do this."
All of this, of course, took a lot of time.
"When I was chief justice, it came pretty close to 60 hours a week, including driving time," says Carson. "I went to every courthouse in the state. It took two years. It’s a big state."
...And a Fine Sense of Humor
When Carson talks about his years on the Oregon Supreme Court, one topic is strikingly absent: his legal legacy.
"That’s a frequently asked question," he says. "I haven’t really thought much about that. I’ve never really cataloged my opinions; I don’t even know their number. A small bookcase full."
Retired Chief Justice Edwin Peterson, who is working on an article on Carson’s opinions for the Willamette Law Review, says that "One of the things I’m going to write about is that he made significant contributions to the professional responsibility law of this state. All disciplinary opinions of the Supreme Court are per curiam, so you don’t know that from reading the opinions."
Carson is leaving an Oregon Supreme Court that is, in some ways, different from when he became an associate justice almost 25 years ago.
For example, prior service in the Appellate Section of the Oregon Department of Justice and/or the court of appeals has replaced state court judgeship as the path to the supreme court. "I’m a better appellate judge because I was a trial judge," says Carson. "(But) I’m the last one (on the Oregon Supreme Court)."
Then again, in a way, Carson won’t really be leaving. On Jan. 4, he’ll be sitting on the Oregon Court of Appeals, filling in for Judge Virginia Linder until her replacement is appointed and taking advantage of a PERS rule that enhances benefits for retired judges if they work 35 free judicial days a year for five years.
"Kind of a glide path," says former-pilot Carson.
Then, he says, "If I can get my courage screwed up," he might spend some of those 35 days presiding over a trial court again.
"(Retired Oregon Supreme Court Justice) Bill Riggs did that and he just loved it," Carson says. "He said it’s like riding a bike. What you don’t know is I took some pretty bad spills. Ed Peterson, whom I adore, had a list of 17 things he wanted to do when he retired. He’s done every one. I don’t have a list."
Carson says that he and his wife probably will stick pretty close to home. (Their daughter, Carol, lives in Anchorage, Alaska; their sons Steven and Scott are deceased.) Neither of us are very big travelers," says Carson. "We don’t have any interest in going to Acapulco."
A more likely destination is Dodd’s Hollow, which Carson describes as "actually a spot, not a town" near Klamath Falls, where Gloria Carson’s mother was born. "I plan to do some genealogical research in my free time," says Carson, "which I hope to have."
As for his own view of his legacy, Carson says he hasn’t given that a great deal of thought.
"I’ll steal it from a comment someone made to me after a speech I gave in Washington County 15 years ago," he says after a moment of reflection. "A fellow came up afterwards and said to me, "a fine sense of justice, and a fine sense of humor.’"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janine Robben has been a member of the Oregon bar since 1980. She is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© 2006 Janine Robben