Born: Monday, October 13th, 1924
Birthplace: Fort Dodge, Iowa
Religion: United Methodist
Education: Swarthmore, B.A. (1949)
Univeristy of Washington, J.D. (1952)
Career: Administrative Assistant to Member of Congress (1954-1960)
Administrative Assistant to Governor (1964-1976)
Served: Thursday, May 6th, 1976 to Monday, January 11th, 1999
Chief Justice: Monday, January 14th, 1985 to Saturday, January 10th, 1987
Political Party: Republican
Appointing Governor: Evans (Republican)James Morgan Dolliver, when viewed from a narrow professional perspective, seemed an unlikely candidate for the supreme court. His experience as a practicing attorney barely totaled four years. From a political perspective, however, he was an ideal choice. He served nearly eighteen years as close adviser to elected officials, first a congressman and then a governor. His political responsibilities under Governor Daniel Evans acquainted him thoroughly with the judiciary. He advised on about 100 of the governor’s judicial appointments, and remained an active member of the governor’s policy team, confronting matters that occasionally appeared on court dockets. Further, Dolliver’s involvement in numerous religious, educational, and civic affairs allowed him to sense what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. called the “felt necessities of the time,” and to be what Governor Dan Evans meant by a “people’s judge.”
Dolliver was born on October 13, 1924, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. His father, a successful attorney, served six terms as a Republican congressman. His great uncle represented Iowa in the U. S. Senate. Not surprisingly, politics attracted James. The future judge grew up in Fort Dodge, attending public schools. The Methodist Church played an important role in both his youth and adult life. “There is no question being a religious person has an effect on you,” he once stated. “Does your religious life impinge upon your public life? Yes. Does it dominate it? No.”
Upon graduating from high school, Dolliver joined the navy as an aviation cadet, gained commission as an ensign, and flew air/sea rescue patrols for the U. S. Coast Guard. He returned from military service to continue his education at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, graduating with high honors in 1949. Drawn to the Pacific Northwest by summer jobs in Olympic National Park, the future justice chose the University of Washington School of Law for his legal training, planning ultimately to practice law in Washington.
Dolliver continued his academic successes in law school. He was a contributing editor of the Washington Law Review, student body president, judge on the university’s traffic court, and member of the Delta Theta Phi legal fraternity. Equally important, he attended classes with many future leaders of the Washington bench and bar.
Upon graduation, Dolliver served as law clerk for Washington Supreme Court Judge Frederick G. Hamley. Under the judge’s guidance, Dolliver gained an appreciation of and respect for the court’s policy-making powers.
In 1953, after his year as law clerk, Dolliver set up a law office in Port Angeles, lost a race for county prosecutor, and left after a year and a half to be Republican Congressman Jack Westland’s administrative assistant. After six years in Washington, D. c., he returned to sole practice in Everett. He devoted considerable time and effort to local Republican politics. In 1962 he ran for Snohomish County Prosecutor, again losing, this time to future Congressman Lloyd Meeds. However, through his Republican activities, he met the majority leader of the state house of representatives, Daniel J. Evans, who lured Dolliver to Olympia as attorney for the Republican caucus. In 1963 Dolliver became a strategist for Evans’s successful race for governor, and after the election he stayed on as chief of staff.
Dolliver and Evans formed a mutually reinforcing team in the day-to-day work of the governor’s office and in long-range policy planning. They generally pursued mildly liberal policies. Anti-pollution laws and environmental issues concerned them both. Dolliver also served as the governor’s liaison with the bar association, negotiating and screening judicial appointments. In this capacity, Dolliver and Evans formed a list of prerequisites for the bench: judicial temperament, non-partisan objectivity, electability, geographical diversity, endorsement by the state bar’s selection committee, and Republican affiliation – although the candidate need not be avidly partisan. Most observers gave Evans high marks for his judicial appointments.
James Dolliver failed to fit the judicial mold that he and the governor had formed. But from another perspective he was an ideal choice for the high court. Evans believed the court’s membership should reflect a wide variety of professional and political backgrounds. The resolution of policy issues finding their way to the supreme court would benefit from the collective wisdom of a court composed of former legislators, judges, prosecutors, and leaders in the bar. Seen in this light, James Dolliver’s varied credentials qualified him for the bench. Perhaps the only attribute missing was the requisite number of years in private law practice. But several other members of the court could provide insights gained from years of lawyering. Indeed, someone with Dolliver’s mixed experience would bring a unifying perspective to the court’s deliberations.
In 1970, Evans urged the Washington State Bar Association to consider the qualifications of Dolliver for the vacancy of retiring Supreme Court Justice Matthew Hill. The bar’s judicial selection committee found Dolliver qualified, but the association’s board of governors, concerned that he lacked sufficient law practice experience, deleted his name from the approved list. The governor could have appointed Dolliver without the bar’s endorsement, but it would be difficult to win election later without its support. Dolliver requested that his name be withdrawn from consideration.
For much the same reason, Evans also withdrew his recommendation of Dolliver for a federal district court appointment. The American Bar Association’s standing committee on the federal judiciary withheld its approval because of Dolliver’s lack of attorney experience, and the Senate Judiciary Committee would likely have balked at the appointment. So Evans removed his assistant’s name from the list. With the governor nearing the end of his third term and expressing doubts about another run for the governorship, it appeared as if Dolliver’s chances for a court appointment were fast disappearing.
The sudden death of Justice Robert C. Finley in March 1976 provided the governor with an unanticipated appointment to the supreme court. He made it clear that James Dolliver was his first choice. Evans thought his administrative assistant was “probably the best qualified person” he had ever “appointed to any position.” He would be “a people’s judge.” He did not ask the Washington State Bar Association for its endorsement, nor did it attempt to intervene. On May 6, 1976, James Morgan Dolliver took his oath and donned the robes of judicial office. He liked his new position and, despite the doubts of some, proved to be a success. However, almost immediately, his spot on the court came under threat.
Walla Walla County Prosecutor Arthur Eggers, a Republican, and Fred Dore, Democrat, challenged Dolliver in his first election. Dore had the advantage of Democratic support and name familiarity, and he took the September primary handily. Dolliver barely edged Eggers for a chance to run against Dore in the general election. Campaigning intensified, with Dolliver winning the bar association’s preferential poll, garnering the endorsement of the state employees’ union, and gaining support from the governor and Republican party. Dolliver’s campaign spent nearly twice as much money between September and November as it had for the primary. Most of the funds went for television ads during the last ten days of the contest. After trailing Dore in the primary by 100,000 votes, Dolliver won by a comfortable 41,000-vote margin in November.
Pragmatism characterizes his approach as a supreme court justice. He seems to follow his “instincts,” according to one of his law clerks. The justice, keenly aware of the political, social, and economic trends in the state and nation, also has a strong sense of equity and justice, gained from his many civic, charitable, and religious activities. Dolliver, a voracious reader, brings to his decision-making considerable information quite apart from the legal authorities presented by attorneys and case books.
His role model on the bench – besides Judge Hamley – was Justice Charles Horowitz. Dolliver was drawn to Horowitz’s views that the court makes policy and that judges have values upon which they often must rely in their deliberations. Of Horowitz he wrote:
[He] taught me the importance of values for anyone who wanted to be a good judge. He helped me to understand not only the need for and necessity of values in decision making, but also that a judge should not be ashamed of or try to hide the importance of values.
Dolliver assumes a stance between the liberals and conservatives on the court. Over the years he agreed most with Justices Vernon Pearson and Robert Brachtenbach and disagreed most with his 1976 election rival, Justice Fred Dore. On occasion, he leads the court in dissenting opinions. He tends to use dissent as a forum for lecturing the majority on what he perceives as the correct view of the law, rather than as a means of persuading members to join his view. He regards
dissent [as] an entirely different way of writing. [In] the typical dissent you’ve got one issue. You can see it right there and you just press that one button and if it doesn’t persuade them, well, ok.
Politics is the art of the possible. Those who successfully practice the art know when to stand firm and when to compromise. For most of Justice Dolliver’s professional life he pursued the politics of others -congressman or governor – and struck agreements with others whose demands needed to be met. However, as a judge, he has the opportunity to reassert his own values, an opportunity never allowed him in the political world. A more moderate-to-conservative Dolliver emerges, a strong dissenter who often eschews the need for unanimity, and an energetic activist who lives as much in the world outside the Temple of Justice as in.
The justice’s constant exposure to the world outside the cloistered walls of the temple of justice – the astonishing range of his affiliations in educational, civic, religious, and charitable organizations and his interest in politics and society tests and renews his values.
However, Justice Dolliver has not supplied the bond that unified the often divided court, as Governor Evans hoped. Rather than serving as the compromiser, Dolliver merely adds his viewpoint to the other eight, resulting in balanced but often tentative court decisions. Although his on-and-off bench relations with colleagues are cordial, Dolliver has tended to be a loner, the bulk of his time outside of court business consumed by his own service, professional, religious, and civic activities.
Dolliver met his wife, Barbara Babcock, while both were undergraduates at Swarthmore College. He majored in political science while she studied English. They married immediately after graduation. The family grew to six children. Of the three girls (Jennifer, Nancy, and Beth) and three boys (James, Peter, and Keith), only Keith has followed his father into the law profession. Barbara taught English at Centralia Community College and South Puget Sound Community College, then returned to Centralia, from where she retired. She writes poetry and shares her husband’s interest in history and historical preservation by printing many of her works on her own ancient, authentic, hand-set printing press.
Dolliver’s oral history interview is in the supreme court collection, Washington State Archives. Also see Kim Meyer, “Justice Dolliver: Keeper of Society,” Dolliver file, same collection; and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 23 Apr. 1976, 25 Oct. 1976, and 5 Oct. 1985.
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.