Valentine’s Day, which is also the anniversary of Oregon’s statehood, seemed the perfect day to kick off the 100th anniversary celebration of the Oregon Supreme Court building, and not just because the state’s highest court took the bench there for the first time on Feb. 14, 1914. The crown jewel of Salem’s Capitol Mall has inspired much respect and affection over the last century because of its rich history, elegant architecture and grand status as Oregon’s oldest state government building.
The Oregon Supreme Court settled into its permanent home after operating in five different locations, including the capitol building, between 1852 and 1914. Sen. John A. Carson, the grandfather of retired Chief Justice Wallace P. Carson Jr., introduced a bill in 1911 that sought funding to add a wing to the capitol for the state supreme court.
“Fortunately, the bill was amended to include a new building for us because in April of 1935 the capitol burned down and would have taken the Oregon Supreme Court with it, I’m sure,” Carson says.
Initially, the new building also housed the state of Oregon law library, the attorney general’s office, and the state’s printing plant. Today the law library, which in 2002 celebrated the completion of a multi-year renovation, draws multitudes to the second floor. The Oregon Supreme Court and the Oregon Court of Appeals share the third-floor courtroom that is beloved for its signature stained-glass ceiling, yellow silk wallpaper and intimate atmosphere. The venerable building has generated an array of memories — mostly fond, but a few fearful — for people who have worked there in one capacity or another. Many offered to share their thoughts about the building during the anniversary celebration, which included Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum leading attendees in singing “Happy Birthday” to the building, and during interviews after the event.
One of Oregon’s newest appellate judges actually began working in the supreme court building more than 30 years ago. Court of Appeals Judge Joel DeVore clerked for Judge Tom Young in 1982, which also involved occasionally serving as a bailiff. DeVore was immediately impressed, and continues to be, by the courtroom’s architecture and space.
“That space is so nice because it’s dignified, but on a human scale. You step in and there are sofa-type seats all around the edge of the room for people to sit on. You stand at the podium to answer the judges’ questions, and it’s sobering but not overpowering. It’s a wonderful design for appellate conversations,” he says.
The infamous stained-glass ceiling, beautiful in itself, also is praised for the reflections it creates on the glass-topped tables where the attorneys sit.
“It’s sometimes distracting to be an advocate there because you’re looking down at your notes and trying not to get distracted by people arguing around you, and then you see the reflection and think, ‘Oh my goodness, this is really lovely,’ ” DeVore says. “That gives you pause in a moment of tension to just notice the space around you, and that is so important.”
Oregon Court of Appeals Chief Judge Rick Haselton relied on that reflection many times to calm him while arguing before the court during the 1980s.
“I was petrified and I would get sick to my stomach before every oral argument. Even driving by Salem to visit my mom in Albany, I would get that feeling because it was so ingrained,” he says. “That wonderful pool of color that is reflected back at you is one of the things that would make me feel happy and help me settle down because it’s so beautiful. Now when kids come to tour the building I show it to them, and they just get it.”
Now, sitting on the other side of the bench, Haselton admires the sense of warmth and intimacy created by the yellow silk wallpaper, lighting, size and arrangement. “We want oral arguments to be conversations and not stilted, and the room’s environment really lends to that,” he says.
For Supreme Court Justice Virginia Linder, it was more of a who than a what that made the greatest first impression.
“I remember walking in and Betty Roberts was on the bench. It was the first woman judge I had ever seen and that made all the difference. Having her on the bench gave me the legitimacy to be there,” she says. “That was one of the more life-shaping moments for me.”
State Law Librarian Cathryn Bowie moved to Salem from Texas in December 2003 to take over when Joe Stephens retired. She arrived in the midst of a “snowpocalypse.”
“I was determined to get to work as I had promised. I showed up and no one else did, for about a week. It was quite a first experience,” she says. “No one was here so I went exploring. The lighting wasn’t great and the attic was a little dark, so it was a little like being in a haunted mansion.”
The library is a personal favorite for Court of Appeals Judge Erin Lagesen, who in 1998 was a law clerk at the Oregon Department of Justice and would come to the library to do research.
“It was fantastic. You could go into the library and see the supreme court justices and the appeals court judges. For a law student, it was pretty amazing that you could walk in and be surrounded by the members of your appellate bench and they would actually talk to you,” she says.
Lagesen also appreciates the building’s accessibility, even with stricter security measures in place than when she was a clerk.
“The public can come in and see the building itself, observe the proceedings and go into the library. It’s a great place to read if you have some downtime,” she says. “More people should take advantage of the fact that it’s here and use it.”
Court of Appeals Judge Robert Wollheim has an affinity for the non-public elevator the judges use.
“It’s this tiny elevator, and it has one of the old-fashioned style gates across it once you get in. It’s automatic in the sense that you push the buttons, but it looks like the ancient building elevators,” he says. “I’m a pretty good-sized guy and the judges joke about whether we’re going to exceed the weight limit. It’s never happened.”
“There are times when it doesn’t stop evenly with the floor when you get off, so you have to be somewhat careful,” Wollheim adds.
His colleague, Judge James Egan, first experienced the building as a teenager because his father was a page who gave tours there. He has long loved the law library as well as the famed wooden drawer in the chief justice’s position on the bench, where generations of judges and staff have signed their names.
“Having been a juvenile delinquent who spent years defacing public property either with a pen or toilet paper, I just love that nearly every judge has signed their name in the drawer,” says Egan, a former extern for Carson. (Carson, by his own admission, so far has not signed the drawer because as a youngster he was so ingrained against the perils of defacing public property.)
Linder says she has been fortunate to view the building from several perspectives, from law student observing the proceedings to lawyer arguing at the podium to justice on the bench. Different aspects of the building have struck her at different times along that spectrum, and she has taken many photos over the years that capture those moments. As an attorney, it was the colored glass iridescence in the courtroom, and now it is the rich mahogany wood and brass registers in the building.
She also experienced the building in a new way while teaching a law course at Willamette University. She received permission to use the courtroom after hours to host students who were presenting briefs and oral arguments for their final exam. The course was held in the fall, so the courtroom was dark when Linder arrived. As she searched for the right lights to turn on, she discovered the room’s globe lights.
“It provided the most romantic image of the courtroom I had ever seen, and it was just totally charming,” she says, adding she often chooses that lighting when holding evening ceremonies to swear in new lawyers.
The welcoming feeling of the courtroom, and of the judges who work there, are Erika Hadlock’s favorite feature. Now an appeals court judge herself, Hadlock remembers arguing before the court for her first time in 1995 and how her connection with the courtroom has grown since then.
“The courtroom has always felt like home to me. I love the warmth of it and how the sunshine comes through and moves across the room,” she says. “But a lot of why I felt that room was home was I felt the judges on both courts did such a good job of making practitioners feel welcome in the room. This is a place where we were all coming together to figure out the right answers to problems.”
Good Stewards of History
Retired Chief Justice Edwin Peterson admits that he was less enthralled with the building during his first encounter than others have been. In September 1957, he was one of many recent law school grads who went to the building to find out if they had passed the bar exam by looking at a list posted to the courtroom door.
“I was euphoric about being admitted to the practice of law, so I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to the building,” he says.
He did come to appreciate its attributes while working there for many years and says the signed drawer was a favorite feature. As chief justice, Peterson was charged with overseeing the courtroom’s remodel, which included the wallpaper and carpeting that decorate it now, and the committee that made the choices.
“I appointed [retired Justice] Hans Linde to select the carpet and he did. Frankly, I think the carpet is beautiful and it’s well over 25 years old now. But I tell you one thing: Never pick a committee of judges to pick carpet or wallpaper,” Peterson says.
Chief Justice Thomas Balmer says he is grateful previous efforts to build a new supreme court building failed. He has an article from the Oregon Statesman dated May 27, 1950, in which former Chief Justice Hall Lusk told the state capitol planning commission that “the present supreme court structure is outmoded and requires extensive repairs.” Lusk requested that a new building be constructed.
“Fortunately nothing happened, and starting in the 1970s people paid more attention to beautiful older buildings,” Balmer says, noting renovations have repaired peeling paint, stained carpets and water-damaged plaster. The stained-glass canopy has been cleaned, and florescent tube lighting in the judges’ chambers was replaced with historically appropriate light fixtures.
“For many years, I had what was originally the chief justice’s office, which is huge with extensive built-in book cases, some with original glass doors, and handsome plaster rosettes, cornices and ceiling details,” Balmer explains. “I now have what was originally the clerk’s office in the northwest corner, which is better designed for meeting visitors and has an adjacent conference room.”
Balmer feels privileged to play a role in the building’s history while recognizing that he and others who work in it are “temporary holders of a trust from the citizens of Oregon.”
“We follow in the footsteps of some great and some average judges, we do the best we can to resolve the disputes that our society brings to us, and to pass on these institutions to our successors — hopefully in a little better shape (or at least not worse) than they were when we took them over,” he says. “It is sobering to think that in this courtroom there have been arguments over life and death, ownership of Oregon’s beaches, the right to free speech, the right of citizens born in Japan to own property — and the decisions coming out of the supreme court have resolved each of those disputes.”
Appellate Commissioner Jim Nass served as the appellate court administrator during the library’s remodel, which occurred soon after the attic was renovated.
“The library used to be pretty dark, so the remodel was really significant and it’s just a wonderful place to be now. Now it has wifi, Internet stations at the work carrels, and it’s a brighter and much more enjoyable place to do legal research,” he says. “Before its renovation, the attic made the library look like an oasis. It was this dark, dingy place and they did a remarkable job of cleaning it up, putting in shelving and getting rid of some trash that had accumulated over the years.”
Nass says the basement also was an unpleasant place before a remodel created office space, a room to store closed files and an improved work area for staff who handle the mail.
James Comstock, business projects manager for the state’s business and fiscal services division, supervises the building’s maintenance staff and the contractors who are hired to work on it. Among the building’s idiosyncrasies, it has four HVAC systems and it can be a challenge to cool it during the summer and heat it during the winter. And, operating a historic structure during daily use is often a fine balancing act.
“We want to find ways to keep the building going without changing it much. We want it to be safe and usable. The building is not a museum piece that sits on a shelf — we want people to use it. At the same time we want to preserve it,” Comstock says.
Truths and Legends
No old building would be complete without a few urban legends. There apparently are no ghosts in the supreme court building, except maybe a deceased elevator operator who hangs out once in a while. And the underground tunnel that leads to the Department of Justice is used without spooky incident by judges and other staff who want to avoid getting soaked during rainstorms.
However, there are plenty of true stories that raise the hair on the back of one’s neck, such as the attorney (who shall remain unnamed) who answered a call on his cell phone while arguing before the supreme court. The story goes that the attorney not only answered the first call without apologizing to the court, but answered a second call as well. He received a colorful reproach from the bench.
In her remarks during the anniversary celebration, Rosenblum shared tales of attorneys lying in the center of the courtroom floor — thankfully, while court was not in session — to get a better view of the stained-glass canopy. Others have attempted to dress in attire that matched the courtroom carpet’s color scheme.
Rosenblum, who served on the Oregon Court of Appeals, played a role in the building’s history when she advocated that a sign be placed in front of the building that lets people know the appeals court and the state’s law library are housed in the building.
“This is a building for the people, and they should know what goes on here even if they never set foot inside the building,” she said during the celebration.
Wollheim recalls a winter storm that uprooted trees near the building. “No one got hurt, but one of the trees totaled Chief Justice [Paul] DeMuniz’s car,” he says.
Carson remembers the large crowds that came to hear the case involving Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers. “The public is invited to hear oral arguments, though that doesn’t happen often and now the sessions can be streamed,” he says. “Whenever she (spokeswoman Ma Anand Sheela) was coming to town, they would set up chairs in the lobby and open areas and people would watch the proceedings.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the Oregon Supreme Court building has been a romantic spot for some. During the anniversary celebration, Senate President Peter Courtney shared that he brought his wife, Margie, to the building for their first date. He took her up on the roof so they could see the city lights. (Comstock says Courtney’s admission allows him to confess that he, too, took his wife up to the roof during their first date. He also invited her to sit in the chief justice’s chair.)
Bowie’s romantic link to the building was shared by the entire supreme court bench, speaking on behalf of her husband-to-be, Ken Henry. Henry, a longtime state trooper who had worked at the capitol and governor’s mansion for many years, collaborated with Carson on a wedding proposal. All of the justices were gathered for a seemingly routine group photo and, with Bowie ready to take the picture, they unfurled a banner that said, “Will You Marry Me?”
“I turned around and there was my future husband. I had the presence of mind to snap that picture of all the justices holding the banner,” she says. “Wally Carson married us in the courtroom in between arguments.”
Less romantic but heartwarming nonetheless, Judy Giers remembers a special Halloween she shared as a clerk in the supreme court building.
“We had a Halloween pumpkin carving contest to carve a likeness of ‘your’ judge, and the contest judging was held in the courtroom with the pumpkins placed at our judges’ usual spots,” says Giers, of counsel with Eugene’s Gaydos, Churnside & Balthrop and former chair of the Oregon State Bar Appellate Practice Section.
Kevin Hylton, an attorney and law clerk with the Oregon Supreme Court, enjoys the story of the William Paine Lord chest near the library. Lord was one of only three supreme court justices who went on to serve as the state’s governor.
“Apparently when Lord was governor, he got a letter from an inmate from the penitentiary. In the letter, the inmate said he was going to be released soon but he had spent most of his adult life in prison and had no family and nowhere to go. He asked to stay in prison and Lord agreed,” Hylton says, adding the grateful inmate handcrafted the ornate wooden chest as a thank-you gift.
Another well-told story about the building involves a contractor who was hired to repair a leak in the stained-glass canopy. In the process, he carelessly expectorated tobacco juice on the glass, a blotchy blasphemy that was quickly noticed by the bench.
“I guess an angry call took place and shortly after that, the building left the state department of administrative service’s control and was handed over to the judicial department,” Hylton says.
As the Supreme Court building undergoes an exterior renovation of its terra cotta covering, which is cracking, a handful of judges who work in the building ruminated on and celebrated its future.
Chief Judge Haselton says a fairly recent image sticks with him as he contemplates the strides the courts have made and the accomplishments that lie ahead.
“During Judge DeVore’s investiture back in January, it was the first time all 13 of us were together on the bench. I was sitting in the middle chair with Judge DeVore next to me and, as I spanned from left to right, it was wonderful, breathtaking and very emotional for me,” he says. “We’re now up to five women, and the diversity and the youth was very moving.”
Supreme Court Justice Lindernotesthat despite efforts to retire the building as a historical monument and construct a new one, it forges on as a working courtroom.
“For me, one of the real treasures is to spend my entire career with this courtroom in service,” she says. “It does seem so appropriate to be able to walk around this building and know that it has that kind of institutional durability that exceeds the people in it. We’re all here for whatever time we’re here, but this building and what it symbolizes goes on just like the law does.”
Retired Chief Justice Carson says that he is impacted by how technology is changing the law and how that, in turn, impacts the building.
“The practice of law is changing and with it will change the practice of being a judge, to some degree. Our work is changing and becoming more mobile, which means a building becomes less important except for oral arguments,” he says.
And Oregon Court of Appeals Court Judge DeVoresays he looks forward to future generations of legal professionals experiencing all the history that the building has to offer.
“I imagine the next hundred years and new generations of young lawyers standing in the same courtroom and enjoying that same sense of reverence and welcoming that courtroom provides,” he says. “It’s wonderful to have the confidence that it will go forward for the next hundred years.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin. She can be reached at precisionpdx @comcast.net.
© 2014 Melody Finnemore