Born: Monday, February 15th, 1892
Died: Thursday, June 10th, 1976
Birthplace: Seattle, Washington
Education: Yale University, A.B. (1914)
University of Washington, LL.B. (1916)
Career: Seattle Assistant Corporate Counsel (1920-1923)
President, Seattle Bar Association (1934)
Served: Monday, September 12th, 1949 to Sunday, December 31st, 1967
Chief Justice: Friday, July 6th, 1956 to Monday, January 14th, 1957
Political Party: Republican
Appointing Governor: Langlie (Republican)From the beginning, the law and judiciary played an integral role in Charles “Carl” Donworth’s life. He was born on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill on February 15, 1892, the son of Judge George Donworth, the first federal district judge to preside in Tacoma, and Emma Laura (Tenney) Donworth. Carl’s father came to Seattle from Maine in 1888, gained appointment to the federal bench in 1909, resigned in 1912, and formed one of the most successful law firms in the state: Donworth, Higgins, and Todd.
After West Queen Anne Elementary School, Carl attended Phillips Andover Academy and graduated from Yale University with an A.B. degree in 1914. He received his law degree from the University of Washington in 1916, winning the coveted Carkeek Prize for the best legal thesis in his class. That same year he gained admittance to the Washington bar and entered private practice with his father in Seattle.
At the outbreak of World War I, Donworth attended officers’ training camp at the Presidio near San Francisco, earning commission as a second lieutenant in the infantry in 1917. After his promotion to first lieutenant, Donworth transferred to Fort Lewis, Washington, as assistant judge advocate. Upon release from the army he returned to Seattle and his father’s law firm.
The future judge was appointed assistant corporate counsel for Seattle in 1920, serving until 1923. While with the corporate counsel’s office, Donworth oversaw the complicated condemnation proceedings prior to acquiring land for the city light department’s transmission lines from the Skagit River project. He also handled legal matters regarding a bond issue for financing the Seattle street railway system.
Donworth, active in professional affairs, served as vice president of the Washington State Bar Association (1923-1924) and president of the Seattle Bar Association (1934), and was a member of the American Bar Association and the American Law Institute. He sat on a number of state and county bar committees throughout his legal career. He also served on the boards of directors of several business enterprises, including Seattle Trust and Savings Bank, First Realty Corporation, and Maltby-Thurston Hotels, Inc.
Although not very active in Republican party affairs, Donworth’s bar association endeavors, his respected family name, and his earlier work as attorney for Seattle brought him to Governor Arthur Langlie’s attention. In August 1949, Langlie announced Donworth would replace retiring Supreme Court Justice William Steinert. His appointment surprised many. Langlie had appointed his old friend and another Seattle resident, Frederick Hamley, to the high court only a few days earlier and most observers thought his second appointment would come from the state’s east side. But a special committee of the state bar had placed Donworth’s name on its list of recommended candidates and the governor selected him from a number of qualified aspirants.
Some observers of gubernatorial politics saw the appointment of Donworth as atonement for Langlie’s slight of the legal profession when he appointed Hamley without state bar approval. The Donworth appointment met with nearly universal approval from the profession.
No one filed against Donworth in his first election attempt a few months after his appointment. In 1956 and 1962 he faced only token opposition, easily defeating his rivals.
In his eighteen years on the bench, most people regarded Donworth as fairly conservative and restraintist. However, one of his former law clerks found it difficult to pinpoint the judge’s particular judicial philosophy:
I would have great difficulty in placing Judge Donworth in either … the Frankfurter (Restraintist) or Douglas (Activist) category. I could never imagine Judge Donworth citing as authority for his opinion the fact that “this offends my Anglo-Saxon concept of law”; however, I couldn’t classify him as an activist even though his stand in protection of First Amendment Rights exceeds that of Justice Douglas.
The judge was not dogmatic. “Occasionally he would be assigned a case in which he appeared to be in the majority, only to change his mind on reflection and further research,” stated his clerk. Then he would write a proposed majority opinion “different from what was voted and try to persuade others to switch also.”
Donworth often wrote exceedingly long opinions, the length largely due to thoroughness rather than duplication and dicta. Scholarly and “scrupulously fair,” one of his clerks recalled that “he took every case seriously-even cases that others might have quickly brushed aside.” An excellent example of thoroughness and careful consideration of all issues argued came in the Lemon v. Langlie case of 1954. The central issue involved whether shifting a number of state executive offices to Seattle constituted moving the seat of government in violation of the state constitution. Donworth’s opinion, voiding the move, covered a number of procedural issues as well as the seat of government question. The judge reviewed the history of the issue from territorial times to the present with a classical review of the constitutional framers’ intent. The late Justice Charles Stafford, a Donworth admirer, described the impact of the case:
In 1954 an entire state government was forced to return to the State Capitol, Olympia. Today, that move is history, but at the time … it was extremely unpopular with the powers that be in all major centers of population in this state. Nonetheless, [Donworth] wrote that opinion, with his usual courage, and with his deep respect for the need of a constitutional government to operate within the confines of the constitution.
Carl Donworth, courteous, proper, unassuming, and a gentleman of the “old school,” rarely raised his voice in conference debates even though he might have held strong convictions on an issue. He wrote 493 majority opinions and only sixty-four dissents during his eighteen years on the state’s high court. But he was proud of those few dissents.
Donworth’s style involved working closely with his law clerk. The clerk would review an entire trial transcript, review all the briefs, hear the oral argument, and “prepare a complete opinion which was then delivered to the judge.” According to one clerk, “We met in consultations several times a week. The most important meetings were those after he had read the first draft of an opinion I had [written]. He would tell me whether he agreed or disagreed and he would then tell me how the judges had voted in conference.” The judge then worked on his own draft of the opinion.
Not only did Donworth view the judge-clerk relationship as a means of assuring a more thorough opinion product; it was also an opportunity for learning, an opportunity eagerly offered and seized. According to one of the justice’s clerks:
He wanted his opinions to be as perfect as he could make them, and certainly was never content to let the clerks do his job … Probably his greatest attribute as a teacher was the time he spent with his law clerks discussing their rough drafts of proposed opinions and pointing out things they may have overlooked…. I thought of him as my teacher – the best teacher in the field of law I ever had.
Another clerk recalled the teacher-student relationship between judge and clerk:
Personally, I thought that one of the most valuable gifts Judge Donworth gave to his law clerks-or at least to me – was giving them a chance to learn how to think like a good judge must think, and making them analyze both the facts and the law in the record in an appealed lawsuit as a good judge should analyze the law, based on the facts established in the record.
According to the state constitution, “The judge having the shortest term to serve not holding his office by appointment or election to fill a vacancy, shall be the chief justice.” This meant that Donworth, as the most senior elected judge, was to take his turn as chief in January 1957. He proved reluctant to assume the often burdensome administrative tasks that went along with the chief justice-ship. He finished out the few months remaining in Frederick Hamley’s term as chief in late 1956 but thereafter, apparently by mutual consent, declined when it was his turn.
Judge Donworth, forced to retire at the mandatory age of seventy-five in 1967, most reluctantly left the court and on occasion returned as pro tempore judge. His last visit to the bench came in the highly controversial Yelle v. Kramer case in 1974 when he joined eight other retired judges as a full pro tempore supreme court. All the sitting justices had disqualified themselves in an issue concerning whether the legislature or voters-through the initiative process-should set salaries of public officials, including judges. The court majority, including Donworth, accepted Initiative 282 as constitutional, permitting the initiative process to intervene in establishing salaries.
Although Donworth was in his eighties during the Yelle hearings, he accepted the temporary appointment with pleasure and with an eagerness consistent with his approach to the challenges of the law throughout his long and respected career.
Donworth married Evelyn Carey in 1918 and they became the parents of Charles Carey and Mary Evelyn. His first wife died in 1934 and Charles married Dorothy Lee Griffin in 1945. He was a member of the Catholic Church, Seattle Historical Society, Knights of Columbus, American Legion, Rainier Club, American Judicature Society, Order of Coif, and Phi Delta Phi legal fraternity. Donworth died in 1976.
C. W. Taylor, Eminent Judges and Lawyers of the Northwest (1954), p. 58; Charles Sheldon and Frank Weaver, Politicians, Judges and the People (1980), pp. 68-76,91,98, 148; memorial services, Washington Reports, vol. 88, 2d (1977), pp. xxviii-xxxi; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 11 Je. 1976.
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.