Born: Saturday, May 27th, 1848
Died: Monday, April 29th, 1912
Birthplace: Boone County, Missouri
Religion: Christian Church
Education: University of Kentucky (1870-1872)
Career: Washington Territorial Council (1884)
Regent, University of Washington (1888-1889)
Served: Monday, January 11th, 1897 to Monday, January 12th, 1903
Chief Justice: Monday, January 14th, 1901 to Monday, January 12th, 1903
Political Party: DemocratJames B. Reavis was the third child of six born to John Newton and Elizabeth (Preston) Reavis of Boone County, Missouri. His father was of Scottish ancestry and his mother came from a prominent Missouri pioneering family. Judge Reavis grew up on his father’s stock-breeding farm in fairly comfortable circumstances, raised as a devout member of the Christian Church. James attended public schools and a private academy, then enrolled in the University of Kentucky at Lexington for three years, leaving before graduation because of illness. Reavis went to Hannibal to study law, and the Missouri bar admitted him in 1874. He earned a living as a journalist for a short time.
Reavis practiced law in Hannibal for nearly two years before moving to Chico, California. After five years he moved to Goldendale, Washington Territory, in 1880. The Democrat Reavis formed a partnership with Republican Ralph O. Dunbar, and both prospered with offices in Yakima and Goldendale. Like his partner, Reavis won election to the Territorial Council in 1884, representing six eastern Washington counties. He was instrumental in changing a law concerning the taxing of railroads and in gaining authorization to establish a school for “defective” children in Vancouver, Washington. In 1886 he was nominated for territorial governor, but the appointment went to Watson C. Squire. The future jurist, always interested in education, served as a regent of the University of Washington for two years and was on the Yakima school board, where he had moved.
The Democrats nominated Reavis as one of their candidates for the supreme court in 1889, a year the Republican slate swept to victory. Reavis received 24,539 votes, well behind the 32,686 votes given his closest Republican rival, Theodore Stiles. In 1896 the Fusionists-a coalition of Democrats, Free Silver Republicans, and the Peoples’ Party-nominated Reavis, and this time he won the election by 12,000 votes over Republican incumbent John P. Hoyt.
In 1902 the political tide turned, and Republican Hiram E. Hadley defeated Reavis by a substantial majority following a strenuous campaign. After he left the bench, Reavis’s mental capacities declined. He occasionally acted quite violently. By 1909 his health had deteriorated to such a degree that he needed close supervision and was committed to the state mental hospital in Steilacoom, where he remained until his death three years later.
Several people have speculated on Reavis’s health problems. Some believed they began when he lost his reelection bid. The physical strains of the campaign exhausted him and the defeat lowered his self esteem. But in 1903 his mental capacities remained high, as witnessed by his written analyses of important court cases. Others said that when he moved from Olympia to Tacoma and then to Seattle to start a new practice, financial difficulties weighed heavily. According to an acquaintance:
In a business way Judge Reavis committed the mistake of not returning to his old home town of North Yakima, where he could immediately have resumed a large practice, for he stood well with all the people of central Washington. At his age he attempted to build up a business in communities where he was virtually a stranger; and the comparative failure of his effort produced a species of melancholy, which affected him during the last three years of his life.
Judge Reavis married Minnie Freeman of Nashville, Tennessee, in 1891. They had two children, a daughter and a son. The judge was active in the Odd Fellows, a charter member of the Washington State Bar Association, and an officer in the Christian Church. He also chaired the Yakima Chamber of Commerce before winning election to the supreme court.
William Prosser, History of the Puget Sound Country, vol. 2 (1903), pp. 73-74; W. C. Wolfe, Sketches of Washingtonians (1906), p. 265; Washington State Bar Association Proceedings (1903), pp. 121-125, and (1912), pp. 188-189; C. S. Reinhart, The History of the Supreme Court of the Territory and State of Washington (n.d.), pp. 86-87.
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.