Born: Monday, June 24th, 1918
Died: Tuesday, July 3rd, 1984
Birthplace: Burlington, Washington
Education: Whitman College, B.A. (1940)
Yale University, LL.B. (1946)
Career: Deputy Prosecutor (1947-1953)
Superior Court (1953-1969)
Court of Appeals (1969)
Served: Thursday, January 1st, 1970 to Tuesday, July 3rd, 1984
Chief Justice: Monday, January 13th, 1975 to Monday, January 10th, 1977
Political Party: Republican
Appointing Governor: Evans (Republican)Someone once said of Chief Justice Harlan Stone of the U. S. Supreme Court that “trying to compress his meaning within the handy labels of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal,’ had been confounded. No tag seemed to fit. Harlan Fiske Stone was a judge, a dispassionate interpreter of the law of which he was a ‘well-deserved pillar.’ ”
Frances P. Bernat’s fine biography of Charles F. Stafford concludes that Stafford, “like Stone, does not seem to fit” either liberal or conservative frameworks. “He tried to dispense dispassionate justice to the best of his ability,” largely successfully because “of an idealized view of his role” as judge. For those studying his background and career, such a conclusion would not come as a surprise.
Stafford was born in the town of Burlington, Washington, the only child of Charles Sr. and Madge Marie (Davis) Stafford. His father, in the shipping business in Anacortes, Washington, managed the concerns of the Curtis-Wharf Company. Although not wealthy, the family lived securely in Anacortes. His mother, a strong believer in hard work, discipline, and education, could be described as a person exemplifying the Protestant ethic. Her father had been a Thomasite missionary in Asia. Strong-willed, proper, and well-read, she was a leading force in the community’s cultural life. While his father tended to his business concerns, Stafford’s mother assumed responsibility for the proper raising of her only son, surrounding him with love and security.
Although somewhat withdrawn, Stafford participated in traditional extracurricular activities. He played on the high school football team, participated in Boy Scouts, and played trumpet in the high school band. Through it all he earned good grades.
After his 1936 graduation from Anacortes High School, his mother urged him to attend Whitman College, a small private liberal arts school in Walla Walla, Washington. His mother assumed he would pursue a professional career. At Whitman he followed both a pre-med and pre-law program, but after confronting chemistry with mixed results, he concentrated on political science as the best training for law study. He widened his acquaintances by joining Beta Theta Pi social fraternity. His studies proved successful, and Stafford won a scholarship. With additional funds provided by his parents and his summer earnings as a teamster for his father’s company and as a purser for the Washington state ferry lines, he concentrated on his studies during the school year, graduating in 1940 with Phi Beta Kappa honors. Yale Law School then admitted him.
Stafford excelled in law studies. In recognition of his academic success, he became a member of the law review. At New Haven he met his future wife, Gertrude Katherine “Kay” Grimm, a New Jersey native, Smith College graduate, and research assistant to a history professor at Yale. However, World War II interrupted both his romance with Kay and his study of law. He enlisted in the army in the summer of 1942. After basic training and officers’ candidate school he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U. S. Signal Corps. A week after receiving his commission, he and Kay married. Stafford served most of his military tour as a signal officer in the Aleutian Islands.
Immediately after his discharge in 1946, Stafford returned to Yale Law School and completed his legal studies within a year in an accelerated program. Although he had initially considered working with a Connecticut law firm, an acquaintance of his mother-whom she had met in Republican party activities-wrote Stafford with a counter offer, which included more money: if he, Rubin C. Younquist, succeeded in being elected Skagit County Prosecutor, he wanted Stafford as his deputy. Stafford did not know Younquist, but the opportunity to return to the West prompted him to accept. With Younquist’s victory, Stafford launched his legal career.
Although Governor Arthur Langlie recruited him to run for the state legislature on the Republican ticket in 1950, Stafford declined and remained with the prosecutor’s office. Two years later, Skagit County Superior Court Judge Willard L. Brickey retired and local attorneys urged Younquist to seek the post. He declined, but recommended his deputy for the trial bench seat. If elected, he would, at age thirty-four, be one of the youngest members of the state courts. After a spirited campaign against an older and well-known attorney, Don Smith, Stafford prevailed. The work of his family and friends ringing doorbells, distributing campaign literature, attending meetings, and telephoning contributed substantially to his winning majority. He was never challenged in superior court reelection bids, attesting to a general satisfaction with his work.
Although new to judging, his years with the prosecutor’s office had prepared him well. Hard work filled in any voids in his background training. According to Bernat:
Stafford … spent a great deal of time … on the cases he was to hear. After his children were asleep, he would usually go back to his office and prepare for the following day. He read and reread briefs and conscientiously researched and analyzed the legal issues presented. While he never worked on Friday nights, or on Saturdays, Stafford would always go back to his office after church on Sunday to prepare for the week to come. Sunday afternoons were “sacred” hours consecrated to study of the week’s docket.
One of Stafford’s most controversial superior court decisions came in the McCoy v. State case of 1963 in which he upheld treaty-fishing rights of Native Americans. Although overturned by the state supreme court, federal courts, in the so-called Boldt decision, later vindicated Stafford’s view of treaty rights. He was also especially proud of his work on the state bench-bar-press committee, established to assure voluntary observance of a balance between free press and fair trial rights.
During his tenure on the trial bench Stafford served as a pro tempore judge of the state supreme court, an experience he treasured. The cloistered intellectualism of appellate decision-making attracted him. On several occasions he asked Governor Daniel Evans to consider him for appointment to the state’s high court, but without success. Even with support from his old friend, Speaker of the House Don Eldridge, Evans’s appointments went to others.
In 1968 Washington voters approved a constitutional amendment approving an intermediate court of appeals. Governor Evans appointed Judge Stafford to one of the twelve new positions. He accepted after Evans assured him that his chances for a future high court appointment remained undiminished. Evans named him to division one of the court of appeals located in Seattle. After only four months on the intermediate court, the governor appointed Stafford to the supreme court to replace the retiring Justice Matthew Hill. Both Don Eldridge and the governor’s administrative assistant, James Dolliver, who would later sit with Stafford on the high court, played key roles in the appointment. The appointment surprised Stafford, who assumed it would be some time, if at all, before promotion. He became the first judge to serve at three levels of the state’s judicial system.
After an initial challenge from Superior Court Judge William Goodloe in 1970, Stafford’s two following reelection bids were unchallenged. During his fourteen years on the state’s high court he established a reputation as a craftsman of the law, a thorough and sometimes overly meticulous researcher with a moderate-to-conservative bent. He proved reluctant to usurp legislative prerogatives or overturn precedent. He wrote almost as many concurring as majority opinions, as he wanted to be sure the court addressed all points. He rarely dissented, believing a unified court essential in important cases. While chief justice from 1975-1977, Stafford instituted few changes and appeared reluctant to exercise the prerogatives a chief possessed. The details of administration, as well as the trappings of power and prestige, did not interest him.
Justice Stafford tended to be slightly conservative in civil liberties and economic cases. But typical of his effort to remain true to the law’s dictates, he hired liberal law clerks to challenge his slightly conservative values. Bernat concluded that the justice was “neither rigid nor dogmatic in his adherence to conservative ideology.” His “value system is probably better characterized as ‘traditional.’ ” Concern for judicial restraint, carefully researched opinions, a respect for the law as an objective force, and a loyalty to the court as an institution expressed this traditionalism. According to Justice Vernon Pearson, a colleague, Stafford
believed in a stable legal system but he didn’t hesitate to change if he believed the law required it, the constitution required it, or that his value system required it. [You] can’t leave your personal value system out. But you can’t let your personal value system affect the application of pure legal precedent. That was the way Charles operated.
Stafford penned hundreds of opinions, his most important involving the same issue. In Northshore School District v. Kinnear in 1974, Stafford dissented from the majority’s view that the system of financing schools through property taxes was constitutional. Stafford, in an atypical angry tone, wrote that the majority had given “birth to a legal pygmy of doubtful origin.” The issue of funding public schools came before the court again in 1978 in Seattle School District v. State. This time Stafford forged a 6-3 majority to force the state to assume full-funding of basic education in public schools. The decision freed schools from over-reliance on the unfair system based upon local property taxes, which favored districts in well-to-do neighborhoods, and special levies, which had become an absolutely necessary, although unpredictable, source for funding basic programs. Typically, Stafford immersed himself into research of the constitutional issues involved in school funding, filling eight filing cabinets with materials in the process. His study culminated in a seventy-page majority opinion, of which he was most proud. His dissent in Northshore triumphed in Seattle School District.
Over the years Justice Stafford was active in the Methodist Church, the Young Men’s Christian Association, and Boy Scouts. He presided over the Mount Vernon Rotary Club, served on the board of overseers of Whitman College – where he received an honorary LL.D. degree-and completed a term on the board of visitors of the Willamette University School of Law. He was a trustee of the Superior Court Judges’ Association, a faculty member of the National College of Trial Judges, and a member of the Judicial Ethics Committee. He served on a number of judicial committees and promoted the constitutional amendment authorizing pro tempore judges to sit on the supreme court. He also wrote several law journal articles.
Justice Stafford treasured family life and he often regretted that the pressures of court work left less time than he desired for his wife and two daughters, Katherine and Joan. Tragedy haunted the close-knit, loving, religious family. The Staffords’ first grandson died of sudden infant death syndrome in 1975. Kay suffered from cancer, fighting the painful disease bravely for years, succumbing in 1980. With encouragement from his children and friends, the justice married an old college acquaintance, Betty Greenwell, in 1981. In 1983 Justice Stafford became ill with stomach cancer. Even so, he continued to research and write opinions, several of which he penned from his hospital bed. On June 20, 1984, the Seattle-King County bar honored Justice Stafford with its prestigious Distinguished Service to the Judiciary and Public award. Betty read his acceptance speech at the ceremony, as he was too weak to attend. On July 3, 1984, Justice Charles Stafford passed away.
Stafford’s oral history interview is in the supreme court collection, Washington State Archives. Also see Frances Bernat, “Charles F. Stafford, Jr.: A Study in Judicial Behavior” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Washington State University, 1987); C. W. Taylor, Eminent Judges and Lawyers of the Northwest (1954), p. 185; Spokane Spokesman-Review, 31 Jan. 1976; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 4 Jy. 1984; Charles Stafford, “The Public’s View of the Judicial Role,” Judicature, vol. 52 (1968), pp. 73-77; and memorial services, Washington Reports, vol. 103, 2d (1984-1985), pp. xxxviii-xlviii.
The preceding biography is from Charles Sheldon's The Washington High Bench: A Biographical History of the State Supreme Court, 1889-1991, © 1992 by the Board of Regents of Washington State University. Reprinted here with permission and licensed to the public under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License by The Temple of Justice Project.