Born: Friday, August 12th, 1881
Died: Monday, June 21st, 1954
Birthplace: Pomeroy, Washington
Education: Willamette University (1905-1906)
Willamette Law School, LL.B. (1907)
Career: City Attorney (1915-1917)
Superior Court (1921-1937)
State Highway Commission (1951-1954)
Served: Monday, September 20th, 1937 to Monday, January 8th, 1951
Chief Justice: Monday, January 11th, 1943 to Monday, January 8th, 1945; Monday, August 8th, 1949 to Monday, January 8th, 1951
Political Party: Democrat
Appointing Governor: Martin (Democrat)George Barton Simpson was born in the small eastern Washington farming community of Pomeroy, the eldest of nine children of Thomas K. and Mary Ellen (Barton) Simpson, who farmed in that dryland area. When George was six the family moved a few miles north to Whitman County where the children attended public schools in Tekoa. In 1905, after Simpson graduated from Tekoa High School, the family moved to Salem, Oregon. George enrolled as an undergraduate at Willamette University where he excelled on the athletic field as well as in the classroom. With lawyering as his goal, he moved on to Willamette’s law department and graduated with his LL.B. in 1907. Both Washington and Oregon admitted Simpson to the practice of law that year. In October, 1907 he opened an office in Vancouver, Washington, and coached the Vancouver High School football team in his spare time.
On August 8, 1911, Judge Simpson married Anita Norelius and the couple became parents to a daughter, Carol, and a son, Donald. Simpson, nominally active in Democratic politics, ran once for county prosecutor, but lost by forty-five votes. However, he won election as Vancouver City Attorney and served three terms. He was also active in the bar, serving as president of the Clark-Skamania counties association for three terms. Simpson was elected superior court judge for Clark-Skamania counties in 1920 and reelected three times, serving nearly seventeen years. His experience with juvenile matters while on the trial bench reinforced his deep concern for the problems of youth.
Simpson had applied for an appointment to the high bench when Judge Adam Beeler retired, but Governor Roland Hartley sought a Republican who could help him in his reelection effort in the more populated areas of the state. Finally, Governor Clarence Martin, looking for a conservative Democrat, found an ideal candidate in Simpson and appointed him to the supreme court in 1937.
Simpson served twice as chief justice and was largely responsible for drafting a revision and compilation of the rules of court. With typical thoroughness, he examined the rules of virtually all state courts of last resort in preparing the draft. The resulting volume contained not only rules on appeals, but also rules for trial courts, canons of ethics, and regulations on bar admission and discipline.
During Judge Simpson’s thirteen years on the supreme court he authored 362 opinions. Although always solid in his research, observers did not regard him as a creative legal scholar. He proved conservative in matters of government regulation and labor union activity. For example, in 1946 Simpson wrote an angry if not intemperate dissent, branding the federal Office of Price Administration (OPA) as a “tyrant and outlaw” that “sears, burns and destroys all it touches.” The OPA had survived, in his view, only because of its “propaganda department.”
In the same year, Simpson lashed out at the Communist threat to America. He warned citizens against “the inroads [Communists] are making into our way of life.” Communist propaganda was “insidious, sinister and of alarming proportions … Even now [it] is seeking control of our government as a silent minority.”
Judge Charles Donworth remembered one of Simpson’s leading opinions upon the occasion of the court’s memorial to their former colleague:
Perhaps the most important case written by him was the unanimous En Banc decision in Tucker v. Brown … which is a treatise on the law of trusts. The opinion comprises 142 printed pages…. The opinion … disposed of seventy-seven legal contentions as to the various items of property and the complicated accounting problems involved and applied the applicable principles of the law of trusts.
One former law clerk recalled that Simpson was “his own man” who worked and played hard. Not given to compromising or forging majorities in troublesome cases, he was more concerned with expressing his own views than winning over others. Simpson’s work schedule impressed another clerk:
Judge Simpson was as hard a working judge in his era of any I knew. When he was writing opinions he worked night and day to get the job done. In most cases he would finish his work load weeks ahead of any other judge and prior to the next session of the Court. He at that point would go fishing and lend me to another judge to assist him in his work … With Judge Simpson I research[ed] and argued but never wrote the decision.
The judge remained somewhat aloof from his clerks and was not one to be “lobbied” by other judges, although he often consulted informally with like-minded colleagues such as Clyde Jeffers, John Robinson, and William Steinert. Simpson was very reluctant to uphold a challenge to the constitutionality of a legislative act. Precedent became his overriding measure of a correct decision. In general, Judge Simpson was one of the leading conservative-restraintists on the modern supreme court.
Simpson, Steinert, and Jeffers had all talked of leaving the high bench before the 1950 elections in order to take advantage of the new retirement law. But, as primary campaign time neared, Simpson decided to seek reelection and resign when he neared mandatory retirement age, thereby allowing the governor to appoint his successor. Since he had run unopposed in his two previous elections he did not anticipate opposition for his final term. However, Robert C. Finley filed against Simpson and, with labor and Grange backing, presented a formidable challenge. Finley had taken Judge Robinson to the November election in 1948 and had a campaign organization in place. In contrast, Judge Simpson had to build a campaign from the bottom up and his name had not been before the public to any great extent since his appointment. The Seattle Bar Association endorsed Simpson over Finley, as did virtually all other county bars. However, Simpson faced a disadvantage because of Finley’s name recognition and active campaigning. Voters may have also confused Finley with the highly popular King County Superior Court Judge Howard Findlay. In any event, Finley trounced Simpson by more than 30,000 votes in the primary.
Simpson returned to Vancouver to practice law but remained quite bitter about his defeat. He felt the legal profession failed to give him the financial and organizational support he needed, and that he had been unfairly attacked by labor as well as the Catholic Church.
Simpson returned to public life when Governor Arthur Langlie appointed him to the state highway commission in 1951. Both prior and subsequent to donning the robes of judicial office, George Simpson participated in affairs concerned with youth. He was instrumental in organizing the St. Helens Council of Boy Scouts and the Vancouver Playground Association and was an active member of the Washington Children’s Home. In addition, he served in many offices of the Elks, Masons, Kiwanis, and Chamber of Commerce. For his many civic activities, services, and commitment to youth, Judge Simpson received the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver award, the 1948 citation from the Washington Children’s Home for “outstanding contributions to the care of homeless children,” and the Vancouver Senior Citizen award of 1939.
Although Judge Simpson’s health was failing, he continued to lead an active life. He maintained a full schedule with the highway commission, while fishing and golf filled his few spare hours. He succumbed to a heart attack in early summer of 1954 at the age of seventy-two.
See Donald Simpson’s oral history interview, supreme court collection, Washington State Archives; memorial services, Washington Reports, vol. 46, 2d (1955), pp. xxv-xxx; memorial services, Clark-Skamania Bar Association Superior Court, Clark County (31 May 1958), pp. 108.
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.