Born: Friday, December 17th, 1880
Died: Tuesday, October 9th, 1951
Birthplace: Mansfield, Ohio
Education: University of Michigan, A.B. (1903)
Columbia Law School, LL.B. (1910)
Career: Superior Court (1933)
President, Seattle Bar Association (1936)
Served: Monday, January 11th, 1937 to Monday, May 21st, 1951
Chief Justice: Monday, January 13th, 1941 to Monday, January 11th, 1943
Political Party: RepublicanJohn Sherman Robinson was born on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio. His father, Samuel, came to America from England at the age of four. His mother, Caroline Mattayaw, was a native of Baltimore, Maryland. His father went to the California gold fields in 1856, returning to Ohio to farm after eleven unproductive years searching for that fortune that eluded so many. John attended public schools in Mansfield and enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan where he received his A.B. degree in 1903. A star athlete in track and field, he excelled in the hurdles and, after an injury that plagued him throughout his life, switched successfully to the shot put. A student member of the athletic council, he captained the track team in his senior year.
Robinson became an instructor at the Michigan Military Academy in 1903. From 1904 to 1906 he served as principal of the Bessemer (Michigan) high school and superintended Bessemer schools in 1906-1907. In the fall of 1907 Robinson enrolled in Columbia Law School, graduating with an LL.B. in 1910, serving as associate editor of the Columbia Law Review in his third year. Immediately after graduation the future judge located in Seattle to begin his professional career. Within three years he formed a partnership with Ira Bronson; H. B. Jones joined a year later. In 1928 he became a member of the firm of Harroun, Robinson, Malloy, and Shidler. Robinson specialized in admiralty law, and served as counsel for the United States Emergency Fleet Corporation, Port of Seattle, and Puget Sound Pilots’ Association.
Apparently, Robinson had been a serious contender for an anticipated new position on the federal bench for the State of Washington in 1930. However, Congress never authorized the position. Still seeking a place on the bench, Robinson challenged King County Superior Court incumbent Otis Brinker. The Seattle bar backed Robinson, and he gave Brinker a close race, losing by only 223 votes. In 1933 Governor Clarence Martin appointed Robinson to one of four newly created superior court positions for King County. Salaries of the new judges were to be paid from court case fees, but the supreme court invalidated that fee system. Consequently, the state voided the four new positions and Robinson, along with his three colleagues, served only six weeks. Again, Robinson was frustrated in his attempt to sit on the bench.
With Democrats in power, it appeared unlikely that even an inactive Republican could gain a court appointment, so Robinson filed for the supreme court upon hearing of John R. Mitchell’s intention to retire. Robinson’s presidency of the Seattle Bar Association in 1936 and active participation in state bar affairs assured him the profession’s support. Robinson led the field among the six candidates in the September primary. In the November election he defeated William R. Bell by nearly 80,000 votes. Coincidentally, Robinson handily defeated each of his subsequent opponents-Don Abel and Robert Finley-in 1942 and 1948, although both later became members of the supreme court. In 1948 Robinson had the distinction of being the only incumbent supported by the bar.
Judge Robinson was clearly of the “old school” of jurisprudence. His dissent in the 1938 decision of Murphy’s Estate has been described as “typical of… Robinson’s preference for just and fair results, and his refusal to be bound by legalistic principles which, too strictly applied, lead to harmful results.” Indeed, Robinson held doubts about how modern judges went about their business:
Mr. Murphy was a very able lawyer of the old school, accustomed to arrive at decisions by the studious application of sound legal principles to the matter at hand. We of the current vintage employ a semi-mechanical method. Trained under the case system, we have set up long, long rows of compartments and labeled pigeon holes, and, when a given situation is presented, we run along these pigeon holes until we find one in which cases that appear similar have formerly been filed, and, having found it, straightway thrust the instant matter in, and thus our decision is made. This, I think, is what occurred in this case.
A number of law reviews favorably cited the dissent.
Judge Robinson had difficulty later in his tenure in completing his assigned opinions. The legislature had mandated that salaries be withheld from judges more than six months behind in their assigned opinions. In 1949 the state held back Judge Robinson’s April salary for a few weeks while he completed his opinions. Robinson’s problem developed from his thoroughness rather than from any lack of energy. A 1943 case illustrated his concern for completeness:
In the hope of finding a more exact measure, we have made a comprehensive survey of the authorities. The encyclopedias, textbooks in tort and damages, the legal periodicals, and the case law of England and our own sister states have all been thoroughly examined.
John Rupp, one of the first law clerks hired in 1937, recalled “Robbie’s” personality and decisional habits:
I never knew anyone who disliked Judge Robinson-he was always fair minded and very wise and witty. I learned a lot from him and always had a good time learning it.
Judge Robinson’s sin, if one can call it that, was that he did not organize his workload well. My father told me that had been true of him as a practicing lawyer. “Robbie,” said Dad, “will work eighteen hours a day on a matter that Interests him and he will do a brilliant job of it. But while he’s doing that, the ordinary routine work piles up until he gets a backlog that just weighs him down. And a lot of it never gets done.” He had the same trouble on the bench. A case would intrigue him, and he would work on nothing else for two weeks. Or he would devote a whole week of constant work in preparing a dissenting opinion, while the cases in which he was to write the majority opinion would remain unattended. He wrote excellent opinions, but he was always chronically behind in his work.
Judge Robinson, relatively conservative regarding economic issues and criminal appeals, was also consistently restraintist in those cases which brought the court into a confrontation with the legislature or which dealt with controversial political issues.
At age seventy, after fourteen years on the supreme court, Judge Robinson announced his retirement effective May 21, 1951. He and his wife remained in Olympia. A little more than four months after his retirement, Judge Robinson suffered a heart attack and died on October 9, 1951.
On June 22, 1916, Robinson married Edith J. Lind of Tacoma, stepdaughter of superior court Judge W. O. Chapman. Edith graduated from Ellensburg Normal School and taught in Olympia. Active in a number of charitable and civic organizations, she was an authority on early American glass. The couple had three sons: John Jr., Sam, and Irving.
Robinson belonged to the Seattle College Club, Seattle and Broadmoor Golf Clubs, Rainier Club, and Phi Delta Phi and Alpha Delta Phi fraternities. His hobbies were golf and gardening.
See the John Robinson, Jr. oral history interview in supreme court collection, Washington State Archives; H. James Boswell, American Blue Book: Western Washington (1922), p. 129; memorial services, Washington Reports, vol. 45, 2d (1952), pp. xxi-xxv; Lloyd Spencer and Lancaster Pollard, A History of the State of Washington, vol. 3 (1937), pp. 364-365; and C. H. Hanford, Seattle and Environs, vol. 3 (1924), pp. 252-253.
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.