A review of an anticipated biography
By William R. Long
Gus J. Solomon: Liberal Politics, Jews and the Federal Courts, by Harry H. Stein (Portland, OR: OHS Press, 2006).
In this much-anticipated biography (due out by the end of May) of Gus Solomon, the longest serving (1950-87) judge in the history of the United States District Court of Oregon, Portland historian Harry Stein has given us a meticulously-researched and carefully nuanced picture of the life and influence of Solomon. In addition to his deep familiarity with 20th century studies on American law, Stein has supplemented his work with consideration of five additional resources: 1) dozens of interviews with members of the Oregon State Bar or former clerks who knew and worked with Solomon; 2) the burgeoning collection of oral histories of judges and distinguished senior lawyers collected by the US District Court of Oregon Historical Society; 3) archival research of national bodies with whom Solomon had a long-standing relationship; 4) extensive correspondence between Solomon and his friends and colleagues; and 5) case files of significant cases in which Solomon participated as a litigant or a judge. The result is a book that lawyers and historians would largely be unable to write: a sympathetic but critical embedding of a judge in the legal and social world of his time.
Stein was able to write this book because of the peculiar shape of his own intellectual pilgrimage. He cut his scholarly teeth in the late 1960s on a study of the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens and then made significant contributions to the study of the progressive period in American history before moving to Portland in the late 1970s and collaborating with E. Kimbark MacColl in his work on Portland’s early history. For much of the next decade, before embarking on this decade-long production, Stein worked as a public historian for law firms and other bodies who needed someone to find abstruse historical references in obscure places. In writing this book, Stein has drawn upon his legal and historical interests not only to open up an area of study hitherto ignored by academics (i.e., the workings of U.S. District Court) but to make a significant contribution to the study of 20th century Oregon history. In short, this book is a gift to the people of Oregon and its legal community.
Meeting Gus Solomon
Gus Solomon, born in Portland in 1906, was the child of immigrant Jewish parents, his father having been born in Romania and his mother in Russia. Living in the south Portland Jewish community, he imbibed a mixture of longing for assimilation with the larger culture as well as the fear that the larger culture might never accept him because of his past, culture, and religion. He attended both Lincoln and Jefferson high schools, graduating from the former in 1923. After a year at the University of Washington, he returned to Portland to attend Reed College (later graduating from the University of Chicago in 1926). At Reed he found a congenial intellectual world. As Stein says, "(Reed) was open to Jews, hiring them for the faculty and rejecting the so-called quota system, a ceiling on Jewish student applicants then being imposed through much of American higher education." Though accepted by Harvard Law School in 1926, Solomon decided on Columbia, then the hotbed of what we now know as American Legal Realism. Instead of using the arid formalism of the Langdellian case-study method, professors at Columbia, led by the intrepid Karl Llewellyn, sought a brand of legal study which would emphasize empirical studies and place law within its cultural context. Law was not an abstract set of legal rules or doctrines; rather, it pulsated with the ebb and flow of the political and social life of the surrounding society. Shortage of funds prompted him to transfer to Stanford Law School, from which he graduated in 1929. By that time he had imbibed enough of the Legal Realist approach to law to know that he wanted to be a lawyer who made a difference in the world and not simply a lawyer who would represent the interests of wealthy clients.
And so, over the next two decades, Solomon established himself as a gritty, combative supporter of liberal causes and movements in Oregon. He championed public power, the ACLU, the Oregon Commonwealth Federation, unions, Jewish causes and civil liberties. One of his signal triumphs was to litigate and eventually triumph in a case that is now an American constitutional landmark, DeJonge v. Oregon, Though only 30 years old when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Dirk De Jonge, and though he didn’t actually argue the case in Washington, D.C., Solomon and friend Allen Hart devised the strategy which enabled the case to be considered by the Court. In 1949, flush with his election victory, Harry Truman nominated Solomon to a seat on the U.S. District Court of Oregon. After a long and torturous confirmation process, which Stein narrates with riveting skill, Solomon became, in 1950, the first Jewish federal judge in Oregon’s history.
His life after 1950 is more familiar to Oregon lawyers, especially those who appeared before him in his 37-year stint on the court. Memorable were the procedural changes Solomon effected at the court through the imposition of local rules, as well as his strong approach to managerial judging. For example, Stein cites the complex case of Weyerhaeuser Co. v. Combustion Equipment Associates, which Solomon predicted would take more than six weeks to try in other district courts, and which ended up taking only 2½ days to try in Oregon. Why? Because of a rigid pretrial timetable which led to a 173-page pretrial order, an order including summaries of 26 depositions and 71 witness narratives.
Legendary also was his frosty relationship with large segments of the bar because of what some might characterize as his intolerant and hypercritical treatment of attorneys who appeared before him. In 1978, to Solomon’s disgust, the Oregon Journal, which under the editorship of Donald Sterling Sr. had been hostile to Solomon’s candidacy for the District Court judgeship, sent out a survey to 300-400 federal bar members about the performance of Oregon’s federal judges. On a 1 to 10 scale (10 being high), Solomon averaged 8.4 for legal ability, 5.0 for fairness, 8.2 for diligence and 3.4 for demeanor. This survey captures in numbers what many senior members of the Oregon bar would, no doubt, be happy to fill out with stories of their own.
Criticism and Conclusion
Stein’s book is ambitious, and necessarily so, because he needed to place Solomon in the context of the Jewish experience in Portland in the 20th century, the growth of large law firms, the public power movement, the dizzying array of leftist bodies and the growth of American law as if affected Oregon. In large measure Stein is successful at doing this, though the sheer volume of material he manages to fit into fewer than 300 pages of text and footnotes sometimes makes for choppy reading. For example, his references to Sid Lezak in two consecutive pages have Lezak apparently arguing cases as a private attorney and then representing the government as the U.S. Attorney for Oregon. Indeed, Lezak was both, but more care could have been taken to differentiate precise years of Lezak’s service. Finally, there is a noticeable absence from this book — Solomon’s family. One would have hoped that the family would have been more forthcoming with interviews or information that showed Gus as a father and husband, as well as judge and lawyer.
All in all, however, this is an outstanding book, one worthy of serious discussion and consideration. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is a serious contender for the Oregon Book Award for 2006.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William R. Long, M. Div., Ph.D., J.D., is a visiting professor at the Willamette University College of Law.
© 2005 William R. Long