Born: Tuesday, June 26th, 1894
Died: Tuesday, February 28th, 1989
Birthplace: Bozeman, Montana
Education: University of Washington (prelaw)
University of Washington, LL.B. (1917)
Career: Assistant U. S. Attorney (1923)
Temporary Superior Court Judge (1944)
Served: Monday, January 13th, 1947 to Wednesday, December 31st, 1969
Chief Justice: Monday, January 14th, 1957 to Monday, January 12th, 1959
Political Party: Republican
Audio excerpt from The Charles Sheldon Oral History Tapes at the Washington State Archives. This copy was engineered by the Temple of Justice Project and is released under Creative Commons License to the public.
Matthew Hill's First Legislative CampaignAudio
Matthew W. Hill was born in Bozeman, Montana, the only child of Saxton D. and Mary Elma (Noe) Hill. Matthew’s father, an employee of the Northern Pacific Railroad, quit the railroad in 1901 to work a 160-acre farm in Illinois left to the family by his wife’s father. Having little inclination for, or success with, farming, Saxton Hill returned to railroading after three years. He left Matt and his mother to manage the farm until he could relocate the family in Lester, Washington, where the Northern Pacific employed him as roadmaster. In January 1906, Matt and his mother moved to their new home in Lester. His mother started a Baptist Sunday School. Matt met his future wife, Irma Verne Young, in a youth group in that same church, where her father served as minister. They married in 1924 and were the parents of Lane Irma, Mary Bea, and Matthew Hale. Irma Hill died in 1981.
Matt attended public schools in Illinois, then went to seventh through ninth grades in Lester’s small one-room school. He completed grades ten through twelve at Stadium High School in Tacoma. In 1912 Hill enrolled at the University of Washington in a combined liberal arts-law degree program, graduating with a law degree and cum laude honors in 1917. While at the university he was a varsity debater, vice president of the student body, and member of several honorary fraternities and social clubs.
After college, Hill taught social studies for one year at Fairhaven High School in Bellingham. He served with the coast artillery during World War I and, upon discharge, joined the Washington Title Insurance Company as a title examiner, remaining until 1921. From 1921-1923 Hill practiced law in Seattle. In 1923 he accepted an appointment as Assistant U. S. Attorney, serving in that capacity for eight months. In 1924 the University of Washington Alumni Association selected Hill executive secretary after he had served as that organization’s president in 1921. He “enjoyed [the work] very thoroughly,” but his success in the job led indirectly to his resignation.
Largely through Hill’s efforts, the 1928 session of the legislature approved a generous budget for the university, which Governor Roland Hartley vetoed. Hill and other representatives of higher education succeeded in persuading the legislature to override the governor’s veto. In retaliation, Hartley fired all members of the University of Washington Board of Regents, replacing them with his own loyalists. The president of the university resigned, and Matt Hill felt compelled to follow suit. He later admitted that “if it had not been for Governor Hartley I probably would have spent the rest of my life working with the University of Washington in one capacity or another.” However, in 1929 he returned to private practice, first on his own, then with Allen, Foude, and Hilen (1923-1941), and finally as a partner with Lee Newman, which later became the law firm of Hill, Newman, and Cook.
In 1932 Hill ran for the state legislature from the Thirty-second District, in which the university is located, hoping to carry on his fight for the university and against the governor. He survived the primary but lost in the Democratic landslide in November.
Hill tried partisan politics again in 1938 when he ran against Warren G. Magnuson for the First District seat in the U. S. House of Representatives. His campaign centered on the failures of the New Deal, on the argument that business should be given the same rights as labor, and on the charge that Magnuson had ignored the state’s concerns. Hill, described by a Seattle newspaper as a “tireless worker in civic, church and charitable affairs, and a public speaker of wide repute,” nonetheless lost. This proved to be Hill’s last foray in partisan politics, but not his last campaign for elective office.
Hill always wanted to be a judge. When Adam Beeler vacated the superior court to accept appointment to the state’s highest bench in the fall of 1930, Hill and fourteen other candidates vied for the King County Superior Court vacancy in the November write-in campaign. Hill placed a distant fourth. Another opportunity presented itself during World War II. Two members of the King County Superior Court took leaves of absence beginning in 1941 to serve in the armed forces. Governor Arthur Langlie thought King County had a sufficient number of judges and initially refused to fill the vacancies. However, in 1944 Langlie lost his reelection bid to Democrat Mon Wallgren who, before taking office, said he would fill the vacancies. To prevent the Democrat that opportunity, Langlie, in the last few weeks of his term, appointed Matt Hill to serve until the elected incumbent returned from military service.
When the superior court incumbent returned, Hill resigned after eighteen months on the trial bench. He gained great satisfaction from the close personal nature of the trial bench: “I never did anything in my life I enjoyed more than the trial court… I had no ambitions to go to the Supreme Court.”
Ed Connelly’s appointment to the supreme court in 1946 had not been popular with some segments of the bar and public. With the encouragement of many members of the supreme court, the bar, and west-side community leaders, Hill successfully challenged the Spokane resident in 1946. In the July primary, Hill outpolled Connelly and another candidate, then swamped the incumbent in November. This was the last time Judge Hill would face opposition in his campaigns. He attributed his success to the fact that he was well known throughout the state as a visiting judge and to his reputation as a public speaker in demand at community and church events, commencements, Fourth of July picnics, and fraternal gatherings. He maintained his public speaking activities throughout his twenty-three years on the state’s high court.
He threw himself into the work of the high court with the same enthusiasm and energy that characterized his efforts as alumni secretary, lawyer, and judge. He was the first to arrive at his chambers in the morning, usually around six after walking from home. In the evening he would leave after six with a briefcase filled with court records or briefs to review that night. He really did not mind the long hours, and usually had his opinions in circulation within a few days.
In writing the majority opinion in a close case, I’d write it the way it ought to be written, then I would begin to go over it and wonder where a change could be made here and there to appeal to so and so if I thought I had a chance of persuasion … To get a couple of votes you’d add a paragraph here or delete a paragraph there. There is a limit to what you can do. You’ve got to be intellectually honest. You can’t impinge on the verities. But sometimes you can say a thing differently that takes the curse off of it.
Hill liked informal persuasion. He would often drop in on a colleague for a chat on a variety of subjects, then bring up a particular case or a phrase in an opinion in order to reach agreement before the opinion finally circulated. One of his former colleagues, Judge Frank Weaver, remembered Matt Hill’s energy with these words:
Matt really had only two hobbies–work and making speeches all over the state . . . Matt is unique. He could subsist on five hours of sleep. He would never walk if he could trot. He always ran upstairs. It was not unusual for him to be in his office at six a.m., work eight or nine hours, then be driven a hundred miles or so, give a speech, and then be driven back to Olympia…
When Matt was driven any place he always rode in the back seat. He was usually asleep before the driver shifted into high gear. . . . I never went any place in the state that someone would not say, “You probably know my good friend, Matt Hill.”
Hill’s flair for writing, his skill for forging agreement among his colleagues, and his courage all came to public display in a 1951 decision, Power Inc. v. Huntley. Hill filed a dissent concerning the constitutionality of a four percent corporate income tax passed by the recent legislature to balance the state budget. His dissent picked up the needed votes to become the majority opinion. Hill wrote:
Finally, it is urged upon us that to declare the appropriation act unconstitutional would throw the fiscal affairs of the state in chaos…
The West Virginia court used a quotation from Shakespeare … to answer the argument of subsequent financial chaos, saying that if it were to avoid its clear duty because of a claim of expediency
‘Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the State: it cannot be.’
It is our view that Chapter 10 of the Laws of 1951 … contains two unrelated subjects in the Title and in the act and is unconstitutional and void in its entirety.
Because of Judge Hill’s opinion, the governor called a special session of the legislature to deal with the “fiscal chaos.”
According to experienced appellate lawyers and law clerks, Judge Hill was fairly conservative and restraintist, characteristics he readily recognized. However, he thought himself less conservative after twenty-three years on the bench than when he first donned the robes of judicial office.
After his retirement he confided that, from a judicial viewpoint, “The world is changing and what was the proper thing ten years ago may not be the proper thing today.” Judges have “to be aware of changing social conditions and changing attitudes.”
Judge Hill’s dissent in Pierce v. Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital Association in 1953 illustrates his restraint. The majority opinion had withdrawn certain types of immunity from nonprofit hospitals:
I shall not take issue with the very thorough and able majority opinion as to the desirability of the results achieved. I do insist that a change in a doctrine which has become fixed as a matter of public policy should be sought from the legislature, regardless of the reason upon which the rule is made to rest…
The views expressed by the majority if unanswerable upon the ments, should be presented to the legislature by the interested parties. There is, in my opinion, no justification for a change by the court in a doctrine which has become fixed as a matter of public policy.
On December 31, 1969, Judge Hill had to retire from the state’s high bench because of Washington’s statutory seventy-five year age limit. In his twenty-three years on the court he authored 685 majority opinions, 110 dissents, and sixty-nine concurring opinions, having participated in nearly 4,200 cases. Only five other supreme court judges had served longer.
The judge continued his frenzied pace after he left the bench, speaking throughout the state, participating in nonpartisan campaigns, and remaining active in fraternal and service organizations. His activities while on and off the bench were so numerous that only a partial listing is possible: Linfield College trustee; Baptist Church lay minister; board member of the Family Society of Seattle, Young Men’s Christian Association, American Red Cross, Washington Temperance Association, Olympia Community Chest, and Berkeley Baptist Divinity School; grand master of Masonic Order; first vice president of General Council of the Baptist Convention; member of the Boy Scouts, Washington and Northern Idaho Council of Churches, National Conference of Christians and Jews, Washington Historical Society, Young Men’s Republican Club, American Legion, Eagles, Kiwanis, Knights of the Round Table, and the National Committee for the Prevention of Alcoholism.
In June 1970, Hill accepted an appointment to hear appeals from the Water Pollution Control Commission, which soon gave way to membership on the pollution control hearing board of the Department of Ecology. His fellow board members elected him chairman, and he gained reappointment to the board for a six-year term in 1972. Also in 1972 he served as a member of the shorelines hearing board and a special citizens’ committee to resolve an Aberdeen school board-teacher dispute. He also participated in a number of initiative measure campaigns. Judge Hill’s “retirement” remained a busy time. After a lengthy illness, he passed away on February 28, 1989 at the age of ninety-four.
Judge Hill was a unique person gifted with a decisive intellect, a Christian commitment, and a store of inexhaustible energy. His Baptist upbringing made him an excellent example of the Protestant ethic at work. His study of the law gave him the content for his life’s work, while his parents provided him with the desire to excel.
See Hill’s oral history interview in the supreme court collection, Washington State Archives; C. W. Taylor, Eminent Judges and Lawyers of the Northwest (1954), p. 54; The Olympian, 2 Mar. 1989 and 31 May 1990; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2 Mar. 1989; and memorial services, Washington Reports, vol. 113, 2d (1989), p. xliii-lvii.
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.