Born: Saturday, September 10th, 1864
Died: Tuesday, October 13th, 1942
Birthplace: Seaton, Illinois
Education: University of Michigan Law School (1895-1897)
Career: Law Professor (1904-1909)
Superior Court (1909-1912)
Served: Friday, September 27th, 1912 to Wednesday, October 13th, 1943
Chief Justice: Saturday, May 11th, 1918 to Monday, January 13th, 1919; Monday, January 8th, 1923 to Monday, January 12th, 1925
Political Party: Republican
Appointing Governor: Hay (Republican)John F. Main was the son of William R. and Sarah M. (Fleming) Main, born on a farm near Seaton in northwestern Illinois on the Iowa border. He grew up there, did preparatory schooling and some college work at Monmouth College, and transferred to Princeton in his junior year, completing his liberal arts studies in 1891. John wanted to be a lawyer, but the pursuit of his Princeton degree left him without funds to continue his education. He returned to Mercer County to teach school, advancing to principal and superintendent in four years. By 1895 he had saved enough money to leave his teaching position and enroll at the University of Michigan law department. Again, for financial reasons, he had to leave Michigan before he earned his law degree. Nonetheless, he won admittance to the Illinois bar in 1897. He practiced law in Aledo, Illinois, until 1900, when he moved to Seattle.
Main worked in a Seattle law office from 1900 to 1904 when he became a professor at the University of Washington School of Law. He resigned in 1909 to accept acting Governor Marion E. Hay’s offer of an appointment to the King County Superior Court. Reelected to the bench in 1912, he resigned to accept appointment to the supreme court. The special nature of his appointment and subsequent election merit some attention.
In the September 1912 primaries Ralph Dunbar, O. G. Ellis, and Wallace Mount ran unopposed. Dunbar led all three in the vote, and all three incumbents were assured of winning. On September 29 Dunbar died, leaving two vacancies on the court – the final few weeks of his existing term and all of the new full six-year term he had won in the September balloting. In that same primary, King County voters had overwhelmingly endorsed Judge Main for another term on the superior court bench. Governor Hay appointed the popular Main to the remaining few weeks in Dunbar’s short term and the judge’s supporters immediately mounted a successful write-in, or “sticker,” election campaign for Dunbar’s full term. Main’s victory, by nearly 12,000 votes over his closest contender, was the first successful statewide write-in campaign in Washington’s history.
Only Mark Fullerton’s thirty-one years on the high bench exceeded Judge Main’s twenty-nine years. Observers of Main’s long career regarded him as a slightly conservative jurist. But over the years the judge appeared to veer across the jurisprudential continuum. For example, in 1923 and 1924, Main tended to agree more often with the court’s moderate members. However, he was then serving as chief justice and rarely dissented from the opinions of his brethren. He also wrote fewer than his share of the court’s opinions. The explanation lies with the role he had then assigned himself. According to one account:
As chief he was the presiding officer at departments, en banc proceedings, and conference deliberations. He determined the panel membership and assigned the court opinions in the more contentious cases. Thus, he had the prime responsibility for coordination, compromise, and communication. Apparently he viewed his role as working toward a court that was effective, cohesive, and authoritative. As such, he was compelled to seek compromise and to avoid disagreement as much as possible, and his own behavior reflected that compulsion.
Fifteen years later and shortly before he left the court, Justice Main, no longer chief, dissented from his colleagues quite frequently and wrote more than his share of the court’s majority opinions. Now he joined with liberal Bruce Blake on contentious cases. However, the explanation for the apparent change was not that Main had somehow converted to the liberal cause after all the years, but, rather, a majority of the 1940s bench was now more conservative than Main, making it appear he had shifted to the left.
A few days before the September 8, 1942 primary election, Judge Main suddenly fell ill. Although he had won the primary, he announced he would decline the nomination because of his weakened condition. Judge Main passed away a few weeks later. After a court challenge, Main’s seat on the court went to Joe Mallery, whose name appeared unchallenged on the November ballot.
Judge Main belonged to the Masons, Nile Temple of the Ancient Arabic Order, Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Elks, Eagles, and Phi Delta Phi college fraternity, as well as the Tacoma Golf and Country Club, University Club, Seattle Golf Club, and Olympia Golf and Country Club. He married Mary G. Crouch of Illinois in June 1892, and they had one daughter, Margaret.
H. James Boswell, American Blue Book: Western Washington (1922), p. 27; C. S. Reinhart, History of the Supreme Court of the Territory and State of Washington (n.d.), p. 77; Lloyd Spencer and Lancaster Pollard, A History of the State of Washington, vol. 3 (1937), pp. 34-5; Ewing v. Reeves, Washington Reports, vol. 15, 2d (1942), p. 75.
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.