Born: Sunday, September 21st, 1924
Birthplace: Auburn, Washington
Education: University of Washington, B.A. (1949)
University of Washington LL.B. (1951)
Career: Deputy Prosecutor (1953-1957)
State House of Representatives (1959-1967)
State Senate (1968-1972)
Court of Appeals (1975-1984)
Served: Tuesday, July 24th, 1984 to Monday, January 9th, 1995
Chief Justice: Monday, January 11th, 1993 to Monday, January 9th, 1995
Political Party: Republican
Appointing Governor: Spellman (Republican)A July, 1984 newspaper account of James A. Andersen’s appointment to the state’s high court began with these words:
A man who rose from South King County coal mines to become a state Senate Republican leader, and then a judge, was appointed to the Washington supreme court yesterday … [He] said he never thought his life would take such a prestigious turn in the days when he worked in the Sunshine coal mine at Ravensdale. “Never in my wildest dreams.”
It is unlikely that anyone who knew the young Andersen would have predicted his future achievements. Nonetheless, he has remained true to coal mining beginnings: somewhat shy among strangers, not given to pretentiousness, always going directly to the point, and often colorful in his responses. Yet he is at ease among the politically powerful, confident in his views, and tough in the give-and-take of judicial conference. The justice is a balanced mixture of worker, politician, and intellectual.
Justice Andersen’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Scandinavia near the end of the last century. One grandfather, Christen Norgaard, settled in Minnesota where he and wife Hansina farmed and raised a large family, the youngest child being the justice’s mother, Margaret Cecilia Norgaard. His other grandfather, Carl Andersen, mined coal in towns from Illinois and Montana to Washington. Carl and wife Lorena also raised a large family including James Andersen, Sr., born in Newcastle, Washington, in 1909. Justice Andersen was born in 1924 during the time his father worked the coal mines near Ravensdale.
Young Andersen attended grade school in Seattle, and finished high school in Walla Walla in 1942. He returned to Seattle, enrolled at the University of Washington, and finished one quarter before running out of money. Then, like his father, he went to work in Ravensdale’s mines. In 1943 he enlisted in the army, which sent him to the University of Nevada to train with a special engineering unit. But the army discontinued the training program and used members of his outfit to complete manpower requirements of divisions being sent overseas. It assigned Andersen to Company C, 63rd Armored Infantry Battalion of the 11th Armored Division of General George Patton’s Third Army.
Andersen, gravely wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, suffered serious shrapnel wounds in his knee and thigh. Out of 250 men in his company only about fifty survived an intensive campaign against General Von Rundstedt’s elite armored and Waffen SS troops; most were wounded or killed. Andersen was one of the lucky ones. His battlefield experiences had a profound effect on him. “We were so very, very young,” he recalled, “and we expected to live forever. We had not yet discovered that death knows no age limits. We learned otherwise in that bloody battle, however; where there were estimated 81,000 American casualties and 100,000 German casualties.” He adds that “when it became irrefutably clear to me that I was not immortal, it came as one hell of a jolt. And nothing so educates a person as shock. I expect that was the moment of my growing up.” He remembered, “It was about then that I started thinking about how I spend whatever additional time on earth, if any, that God might see fit to grant me.”
After being hospitalized for his injuries for most of a year, first in Europe and then in the United States, he obtained a disability discharge from the army. “I was a disabled veteran at the ripe old age of twenty-one years and a few days,” he remembered. “Where once I looked forward to being a track star, I was now doing well to walk.”
After the war, Andersen drifted for a while, angry and confused:
I have never before nor since met anybody who even approached me in the depths of my bitterness. .. I had killed many people. I had lost every friend I had. I bummed around the country, riding my thumb, through the Midwest, starting out for Arizona. I wanted to go somewhere where there was sunshine. I got drunk in Los Angeles, ran out of money, and got a job at the terminal island shipyards, very lonely, very lost.
It was another turning point. Until then his dream of a job was to work indoors, perhaps with a men’s clothing store. But now he decided there had to be something better for him, so he took advantage of the G. I. Bill, quit his job at Terminal Island, returned to Seattle, and enrolled at the University of Washington.
As an undergraduate Andersen was erratic, doing exceptionally well in courses that interested him and barely passing in those that appeared to be irrelevant to his career interests. In 1949 he received a degree in political science and went to law school. Andersen graduated with an LL.B in 1951 and, as he put it, “conned my way into” the King County Prosecutor’s Office under Charles O. Carroll. He knew no lawyers, had no experience, and had not been politically active. He simply talked Carroll into giving him a chance. In a few years with the prosecutor’s office, Andersen compiled one of its best records. He prosecuted many of the office’s most important cases involving murder, bribery, robbery, and rape. Prosecutor Carroll remarked when Andersen left after three-and-a-half years, “Jimmy was one of the hardest working young attorneys I’ve had in my office. He lost only two cases.”
In 1956 Andersen resigned from the prosecutor’s staff and filed for election to the office of Washington State Attorney General, his first political campaign. He was thirty-one. Had he won he would have been the youngest attorney general in state history. He received the Republican nomination but lost the general election to John J. O’Connell, the Democratic candidate. He nevertheless polled more votes than all but one other statewide candidate of his party. Although he personally opposed it, a right to work measure had the practical effect of defeating him. The initiative attracted many Democrats to the polls, leading to the defeat of the entire Republican slate for statewide office. This was his only election defeat, but as he recalled, “It was a real blessing, though well concealed at the time. I learned in a way calculated to stay in mind that people were the ones running things.”
Andersen learned his lesson well, defeating an incumbent Republican legislator in the 1958 election and serving with distinction for fourteen years in the state legislature, first in the house then the senate. Each time he ran for reelection he received the nonpartisan Seattle-King County Municipal League’s highest rating. He also has the distinction of receiving more votes than any other Republican representative in state history.
“That was in the last days of the real ‘citizens’ legislature’ ” he recalled, “when if your neighbors paid you the honor of electing you, you closed up your store, office, or left the farm for sixty days or so every two years. Then you went to Olympia, decided on a state budget, passed some bills, and returned home. Those days are gone forever in this state, and it has now become virtually a full-time job. It was when the legislature turned that corner that I had no real choice but to leave.”
Columnist Adele Ferguson commented that Andersen
went into politics and stayed there 15 years, plugging away at filling loopholes in laws on law enforcement, like granting immunity to private citizens aiding a police officer, making it a crime to mutilate or trample on the American flag, creating a statewide criminal identification bureau, preventing pawnbrokers who received stolen goods from making the rightful owner pay to get their property back. And who tried again and again to get mandatory sentences for drug pushers. It was his bill that set up Medic I, and it was his bill that established Seattle, Bellevue and Edmonds Community Colleges.
A conflict between his law practice and legislative duties prompted Andersen to resign from the lawmaking body. There was not enough time to serve his legal clients and also perform the leadership roles his legislative colleagues assigned him. He had to make a choice, and the law won over politics.
Until late 1974, when Governor Daniel Evans appointed him to the Washington Court of Appeals Division One in Seattle, Andersen committed himself to his law practice, winning most of his cases and earning a respectable living. He won because of his thoroughness. As he worded it, he “put a little bit of myself’ into each case. This strain, as well as missing public service, prompted Andersen to accept Governor Evans’s offer, and he assumed his position on the court of appeals in January 1975. In standing for election to the appeals bench a short time later, Judge Andersen won overwhelmingly, garnering approximately seventy percent of the popular vote against an experienced candidate. Part of his success can be attributed to his eighty-one percent favorable vote from attorneys in the bar poll.
After almost ten years on the court of appeals, Republican Governor John D. Spellman appointed Andersen to the supreme court. In so doing, he filled the vacancy created by the death of Justice Charles Stafford.
Justice Andersen regarded himself as a judicial restraintist. He was not “one who believes that the judiciary is the fountain of all … knowledge in this world.” For him, “there has to be a good reason to change the law … Give power to those elected to govern.” At the same time, Andersen was concerned about the lack of balance, as he saw it, between the rights of the accused and those of victims: “I spent enough years as a prosecutor sitting with the victims of crime to understand what crime really is and what it does to people.” The justice tended to align himself with those on the bench who took a moderate-to-conservative view regarding criminal law. At the same time, he remained a staunch protector of First Amendment principles. He was considered by most to be the staunchest advocate on the court for freedom of the press.
Justice Andersen wrote more than his share of majority opinions, garnering a better-than-average number of votes from his colleagues. His reluctance to dissent confirmed him as a strong believer in the court “team concept.” A sample of nearly 500 opinions show that Andersen filed only nine dissenting opinions. He recognized that he did not dissent often but rather tried “to work it out” with the other justices.
Writing for a unanimous court in State v. Gunwall, Justice Andersen, in a straightforward style that separates each topic into sections and subsections, established standards for applying state constitutional provisions to issues before the court. Although he accepted liberal provisions of the state constitution, Andersen limited those provisions by insisting they be applied only in accordance with well-defined and strict standards. In Gunwall Andersen brought together those critics who regarded the new emphasis upon the state constitution as “constitution shopping” and “all sail and no anchor” with those who viewed state constitutions as the “triumph of personal liberty” or a means to “adapt our law … to changing civilization.” Politics is the art of the possible, accomplished by compromise. The Gunwall opinion is an example of that art. By applying carefully defined standards to state constitutional provisions, the justice imposed a degree of accountability on the activism of judicial new federalism.
Justice Andersen had two children, Tia Louise and James Blair. He was divorced, and readily admited that he was a “workaholic” and that his work was his hobby.
Andersen’s oral history interview is part of the supreme court collection, Washington State Archives. Also see Bellingham Times, 7 Oct. 1987; Spokane Spokesman-Review, 10 Jy. 1984; Bellevue American, 12 Jan. 1972; and supreme court “Induction Ceremony Program,” 24 Jy. 1984.
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.