Born: Sunday, August 23rd, 1914
Died: Saturday, October 6th, 1979
Birthplace: Pullman, Washington
Education: Washington State University, B.A. (1936)
University of Idaho, LL.B. (1938)
Career: Assistant Attorney General (1945-1967)
State House of Representatives (1949-1956)
State Senate (1957-1967)
Federal District Court (1972-1979)
Served: Monday, April 24th, 1967 to Thursday, November 16th, 1972
Political Party: Republican
Appointing Governor: Evans (Republican)Marshall A. Neill’s public life combined the qualities of lawyering, politicking, and judging into a delicately balanced whole. For twenty-nine years, “Marsh” practiced law in Pullman, Washington, in his own small law firm while serving as assistant attorney general for Washington State University and attorney for the City of Pullman. From 1949 to 1956 he represented Whitman County in the Washington House of Representatives and then moved to the senate, serving until his appointment to the supreme court in 1967. After five years on the state’s high court, he gained appointment to the U. S. District Court for eastern Washington, where he remained until struck down by cancer at the age of sixty-five. As Judge Neill moved through positions of public responsibility, he consistently brought the same moderate values to his tasks and, according to all accounts, maintained the highest integrity and commitment.
Marshall Neill was born August 23, 1914, in Pullman, the second child of Roy A. and Maude (Cameron) Neill. His parents operated a florist shop in Pullman. Marsh’s grandfather, Thomas Neill, practiced law in Colfax and Pullman and later served on the superior court bench. He founded the Pullman Herald newspaper and proved influential in having the small village selected as the location of the state agriculture college in 1890. Young Marsh attended public schools in Pullman, graduating from Pullman High School in 1932, and from Washington State University in 1936 with a B.A. degree in political science. He chose political science to gain access to law school rather than to further any interest in politics. Fortunately, the demands for entry in those days were few; Neill’s undergraduate record was far from outstanding.
For as long as he could remember he had wanted to be a lawyer. As he explained:
My grandfather was an Irish immigrant. He came to this country uneducated and read law in Indiana and in the Dakota Territories. He came out to the Territory of Washington and established a law office in 1887, which I have had the fortune to continue.
Following graduation, Neill commuted ten miles down the road to the University of Idaho Law School. There he excelled, graduating second in his class in 1938. After gaining admission to the Washington bar the same year, the future judge set up practice in his grandfather’s office in Pullman and, with Hugh Aitken, formed a law partnership. Neill’s son, Howard, later practiced out of the same downtown office.
Marshall’s initiation into political and public service came inadvertently. While pleading the cause of one of his friends the “accident” happened:
I was picked by the county commissioners because I went over and shot off my mouth about how they were treating a good personal friend of mine. . . They called my bluff. “Listen, if we appoint [the friend] to the Senate will you take over his opening in the House?” I could hardly say “no.” That’s how I got into politics.
Until that point Neill had not even claimed a political party. But his appointment as a Republican proved fortunate. He successfully defended his house seat in subsequent elections when Democrats, recognizing the futility of running against Neill, often refused to file for the office. He served until 1956, when elected to the senate. The soft-spoken, easy-going Neill gained respect from both sides of the aisle with a reputation for achieving compromise and consensus on divisive issues. Justice Robert Brachtenbach, who served with Neill in the legislature, remembered his friend’s political talents:
We worked on significant legislation, and I learned that you don’t have political enemies, you have political friends … We worked together within our own political party, and I’ve seen many conventions when the wisdom of Marsh Neill prevented those disasters that sometimes happen within political parties.
In 1955 his Republican colleagues elected him house minority leader. In 1962 he was selected as the senate Republican caucus chairman. Neill also assumed positions of leadership within the state party structure. His work as a leader among Republican legislators brought him into close contact with Governor Daniel J. Evans, with whom he had also served in the house.
Neill adopted his grandfather as his professional role model. Judge Tom Neill inspired his choice of law as a career and his interest in a judgeship. When Judge Richard B. Ott announced his retirement in April 1967, Marshall Neill was in the “right place at the right time” to fulfill his career objective:
[I was] upstairs in the Senate as [Evan’s] Senate leader and carrying the ball for his program. [I would go] down daily [to his office] and pound the table, disagreeing a lot of the time. But I followed him, he was my party leader. So when the word came that Judge Ott was going to retire I knew there was going to be an opening. I just went downstairs and said that is what I want.
The fact that Neill came from eastern Washington, the same section as Ott, and that the bar selection committee approved him, simply reinforced his case for appointment. The old adage that a “judge is simply a politician who knows the governor” holds true for Neill. But Governor Evans had ample opportunity to appraise the talents of his former Republican colleague. He knew whom he was appointing. The support of fellow legislators – Republican and Democrat – had much to do with his initial appointment and assured him strong backing throughout the state in subsequent election efforts. Actually, in both of his high court elections, no one filed against Neill; people viewed such a challenge as futile since the justice had well-organized supporters on both sides of the Cascades.
While on the court, Justice Neill authored 113 majority opinions, twenty-three concurrences, and twenty-eight dissents. His opinion-drafting process always considered the preferences of other judges when possible, often reinforced by informal discussions with or memos to his colleagues. He shared the actual drafting of opinions with his law clerk. According to one of his former personal assistants:
I usually met with the Judge on the morning of oral argument to discuss the cases. If one of us spotted an interesting case, we might discuss it earlier. Afterwards, we would thoroughly discuss any opinions the Judge was assigned. I wrote drafts of many (but not all) of these opinions. The Judge tended to keep concurring opinions and dissents. The Judge would occasionally ask for research on another judge’s opinion which was bothering him – this might lead to a memo … I thought he … work[ed] more closely with [me] than any of the other judges [did with their clerks].
Justice Neill’s decisions reflected a moderate approach to the law, although he viewed himself as a fiscal conservative and restraintist:
I have a strong feeling toward the legislative branch. I still feel it is the policy making body. I have always resisted … the activism of the courts. I don t think we are equipped nor trained for that … I fought with my colleagues many many times over this philosophy.
His many years as a politician had shown him that compromise, persuasion, and consensus achieved desired objectives. As a judge he often softened his views in order to achieve compromise. If he failed to convince a majority of his brethren he would acquiesce. He wrote his few dissents more to “keep the majority ‘honest’ ” and to “point out the impact of the majority’s opinion on society,” than to “win over the majority or to win more votes.”
The time, effort, pressures, and costs of campaigning bore heavily on Neill. He felt that he did not have the independence necessary for ruling in many cases. For example, he “drew two or three cases just before he would have had to run for reelection which were political dynamite” and could have led to his defeat. He wrote a dissent in a teachers’ pension case that could have caused the Washington Education Association to work against him. Taxpayers might well have protested after his dissent in the North King County Taxpayers’ case. And he was convinced his opinion in the DeFunis case would be extremely unpopular. The security and independence of the federal bench appeared attractive.
In 1971 Neill contended unsuccessfully for the seat on the federal bench being vacated by Judge George Boldt. A year later another federal trial bench position opened up in Spokane. With support from Congressman Tom Pelly, Governor Evans, and Al Schweppe, a prominent Washington attorney, President Richard Nixon sent Neill’s name to the senate for confirmation. It was most favorably received. At the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Roman Hruska asked Neill about his law practice. “I’m a country lawyer and I do the best I can with whatever comes in the door that morning,” responded Neill, to which Hruska replied, “Glad to see some of us left.” The senate confirmed his nomination on a voice vote. After finishing his opinion assignments, including the reverse discrimination DeFunis case, Justice Neill resigned from the supreme court on November 16, 1972, and assumed his federal judicial office the next day.
Judge Neill’s court suffered from one of the heaviest case loads in the federal circuit. Even working evenings at home and on Saturdays, and obtaining assistance from visiting judges, the onerous workload remained. Despite the heavy case load, Neill found the trial bench exciting. The close give-and-take with attorneys and juries pleased him and he found the day-to-day problems brought to the court challenging. But the burdens of sentencing always weighed heavily. On Sunday nights preceding Monday sentencing days, the judge rarely rested well.
Judge Neill married Marion Hackedorn of Pullman in 1938. They had three children: Marjorie, Martha, and Howard. The judge saw action with the navy in World War II during the campaigns for Okinawa and the Philippines. He belonged to and served as president of a number of business, professional, civic, and social groups, including the Pullman Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Masons, Shriners, Whitman County Bar Association, and Washington State University Alumni Association. The judge received Washington State University’s Alumni Achievement Award in 1971, and in 1976 the university’s highest honor, its Distinguished Alumnus Award.
After taking leave from the court in April 1979 for cancer surgery, Judge Neill returned to his daily routine knowing the disease had progressed beyond hope. He died a few months later.
Neill’s oral history interview is in the supreme court collection, Washington State Archives. Also see Danielle Darcy, “Biography of Judge Marshal A. Neill,” Neill file, same collection; and memorial services, Washington Reports, vol. 93, 2d (1980), pp. xxxv-xli.
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.