Born: Monday, November 10th, 1862
Died: Thursday, April 14th, 1927
Birthplace: Putnam County, Indiana
Education: DePauw University, A.B. (1885)
Career: Prosecuting Attorney (1896-1898)
President, Washington State Bar Association (1908)
Served: Sunday, June 1st, 1919 to Thursday, April 14th, 1927
Political Party: Republican
Appointing Governor: Hart (Republican)Jessie B. Bridges’ father, James, a Kentucky native, moved north to a farm near Greencastle, Indiana. His mother, Mary (Darnell) Bridges, grew up in Indiana. Jessie was born on the family farm, where he spent his boyhood days. He graduated from DePauw University in 1885 and began studying law in the office of a respected Indianapolis lawyer, Major Jonathan W. Gordon. In 1888 the Indiana bar admitted Bridges and he practiced in Indianapolis. In 1890 he moved to Tacoma, remaining there for six months before opening an office in Montesano in southwestern Washington. He soon joined in the law partnership of Lind, McKinley, and Bridges. Elected Grays Harbor Prosecuting Attorney in 1895 as a Republican, he served one term, then opened an office in Aberdeen with Judge Mason Irwin. In 1902 the partnership dissolved and Bridges practiced alone for four years until he formed a partnership with T. B. Bruener, “one of the strongest legal organizations in southwestern Washington.” Bridges developed a strong reputation as a lawyer for business concerns, and actively participated in professional affairs. In 1908 the fledgling Washington State Bar Association elected him president.
Bridges’ knowledge of corporate law and his acumen in business affairs led to his appointment as president of the Electric Service and Supply Company, first vice president and counsel for Grays Harbor Railway and Light Company, vice president of the Big Creek Timber Company, and director of Olympia National Bank. Perhaps the accomplishment bringing him the greatest statewide attention, aside from the presidency of the state bar, was his drafting of the state probate code that the legislature adopted in 1917.
When Judge Stephen Chadwick resigned from the supreme court in 1919, acting Governor Louis F. Hart turned to Jessie Bridges to fill the vacancy. Although Bridges had a very lucrative practice, his belief in public service compelled him to accept the governor’s offer. Bridges had not been active in Republican politics; the governor had no commitment to achieve or maintain geographical balance on the court and had no political debts to pay. He chose Bridges because of his legal abilities and his stature in the profession.
Bridges had no difficulty turning back his opposition in the 1920 election, achieving victory with an absolute majority in the primary. In the 1926 primary contest against William Pemberton he garnered 10,000 more votes than his opponent and won the general election by nearly 50,000 ballots. Both the state and the Seattle bar associations, as well as nearly all county bars, supported his reelection in 1926, not only because of his judicial competence but also because of concern about Pemberton’s “radicalism.”
Judge Bridges provided many of the “swing” votes in cases that divided the court during his tenure. As a moderate, he held the balance between conservatives and liberals on the bench, especially during his earlier years. His colleagues often rewarded him with opinion-drafting assignments for the court majority.
One of Bridges’ special interests was legal training. Although he had read law himself, he became a strong advocate of formal law school education. In his 1908 presidential address to the state bar he revealed what many then felt about the differences between studying law with an attorney and attending a law school:
Of late years I have become a most thorough and earnest advocate of the law school and law school education. I will be suffered to more freely express my opinion because I am not of such schools. I have had the honor to be for several years a member of the State Board of Examiners for admission to the Bar. There, as elsewhere in my profession, have I been converted to the law schools. Eight times out of ten can the examiner tell, by reading the answers to the first half dozen questions, whether the applicant is a law graduate or not. If he is his answers will show that he is grounded: that he is familiar with the fundamental principles of law; that he has unlocked the door of and boldly entered into the solemn temple where law resides. It is most beautiful and satisfactory, to see the young mind arrive at a correct answer, not because he has seen or read the answer, but because he knows the fundamental principles, and from them, by reason and logic, reaches the correct conclusion …
It has been argued that the self-made lawyer gets earlier into the profession: that he gains by experience what the other gains from his teachers. To some great minds this argument applies, but it does not to the average mind. With as much reason may we advise the child to teach himself the law. One is as much a child as the other. The self educated lawyer builds his house on the sands, while the other builds on the rock. The first must always protect himself against every legal storm and every tide of battle, while the other lives in full confidence of the security of his foundation.
Judge Bridges married Mary L. Smith of Hoquiam, member of one of Grays Harbor’s pioneer families and the daughter of a successful banker. They had no children. The judge was an avid golfer, a charter member of the Grays Harbor Country Club, and a member of the Olympia Country Club. He also joined the Elks and Woodmen of the World.
In March 1926, Judge Bridges received a seventy-five day leave to take an ocean voyage to regain his health. He never fully recovered and, after two major operations for stomach cancer, succumbed to the illness in April 1927.
William Prosser, History of the Puget Sound Country, vol. 2 (1903), pp. 404-405; H. James Boswell, American Blue Book: Western Washington (1922), p. 48; Seattle Times 15 Apr. 1927; and Washington State Bar Association Proceedings (1927), pp. 69-70.
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.