Born: Tuesday, December 31st, 1867
Died: Monday, September 13th, 1948
Birthplace: Haubstadt, Indiana
Education: Southwestern Indiana Normal School (1888)
Chicago College of Law, LL.B. (1892)
Career: Prosecuting Attorney (1895-1898)
State Commissioner of Arid Lands (1898-1901)
Ritzville Mayor and City Councilman (1899-1908)
Superior Court (1909-1915)
Served: Monday, January 11th, 1915 to Monday, January 10th, 1927
Also Served: Friday, April 22nd, 1927 to Monday, January 9th, 1939
Chief Justice: Sunday, June 1st, 1919 to Monday, January 10th, 1921
Political Party: DemocratOscar R. Holcomb, born December 31, 1867 in Haubstadt, Indiana, was the son of Silas Mercer and Mary Ann (Hopkins) Holcomb, both members of Indiana pioneer families. His father, a lawyer, fought in the Civil War as an officer with the Sixty-third Indiana Volunteer Infantry and was wounded several times. Following the war he returned home to Gibson County and resumed law practice.
Oscar received his early education in the county public schools, graduating from high school in Fort Branch, Indiana. While working on his father’s farm he attended Southwestern Indiana Normal School for two years, after which he taught for three years. He studied law with his father during vacations and then at the Chicago College of Law, where he graduated in 1892. He practiced law in Evansville with Clinton Staser, later to become his father-in-law. In 1893 he became attorney for the St. Paul office of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The Staser family moved to Tacoma, Washington, and Holcomb, eager to remain near his future wife, asked his superiors for an assignment in the West. Late in 1893 the company sent him to Ritzville, Washington, to settle land claims against the railroad. Taken by the area and its opportunities, he resigned his position with the railroad and set up a law office in Ritzville. He and Eva Staser married in 1894. Their family eventually grew with the addition of three boys-Silas, Maurice, and Leland-and three girls-Marjorie, Mariam, and Mary.
In 1895 Holcomb gained appointment as prosecuting attorney for Adams County and was elected to that position the next year. He successfully prosecuted the county’s first murder case. He resigned as prosecutor in 1898 to accept Governor J. R. Rogers’s appointment as State Commissioner of Arid Lands. Because several large companies opposed government involvement in developing irrigation, Holcomb was unsuccessful in his efforts to promote irrigation in eastern Washington. In 1899 the legislature abolished the office and Holcomb returned to private practice in Ritzville.
After serving six terms as city councilman, voters elected Holcomb mayor, and he served from 1905 to 1908. A school board member for several years and an active member of the Episcopal Church, Holcomb participated in virtually every community undertaking that moved Ritzville from a makeshift village to a modern town.
The future judge became a leading figure in Democratic politics in eastern Washington. Nominated to be Commissioner of Public Lands on the Democratic and Free Silver Republican “Fusionist” ticket in 1900, he failed to win the general election. Two years later he ran, again unsuccessfully, for Congress as a Democrat. However, his political destiny lay in the judiciary. In 1908, upon the urging of local progressive leaders in the Ritzville community, Holcomb agreed, as he put it, to attempt to “rid the people of an unjust, malicious, tyrannical and drunken judge.” Voters rewarded his efforts, and he donned the robes of judge of the superior court responsible for a vast three-county jurisdiction in southeastern Washington.
Some people urged him to submit his name for nomination to the high bench at the 1910 Democratic convention, the last year of partisan contests for the supreme court. He refused because of his belief in nonpartisanship for judges and his commitment to supreme court candidates nominated by the nonpartisan convention intent on challenging nominees of the two major parties. Some had considered Holcomb a serious candidate for appointment to a vacancy on the state’s high bench on several occasions, but his liberal and independent attitudes failed to impress the state’s chief executive. In 1914, before he finished his second term on the trial bench, he mounted a successful campaign for the supreme court, pushing aside incumbent Mack F. Gose by nearly 6,000 votes in the September primary, which assured him victory in the November election.
In 1926, after Holcomb had served two full terms on the state’s high bench, Walter French, superior court judge of Kitsap County, defeated him during a reelection bid. In an unprecedented move, Holcomb was then reappointed to the supreme court in April 1927 to fill the vacancy left when J. B. Bridges died. Republican Governor Roland Hartley’s choice of the Democratic Holcomb raised a few eyebrows among Republican stalwarts, but the appointment made political and practical sense. Holcomb was from eastern Washington, although he had been practicing law in Seattle since he left the bench in January. Only two other Easterners then served on the bench and the appointment would redress the geographical imbalance. Also, since Hartley had received some support from Democrats in his political battles, the appointment of the old-time Democrat Holcomb clearly expressed the governor’s appreciation. Hartley, in the midst of reorganizing his administration, wanted to avoid a prolonged battle over a court appointment. Finally, Bridges had been ill during his last few months and a backlog of cases developed. A quick appointment of the conscientious and experienced Holcomb would enable the court to move again with a full complement of Judges.
A year after his appointment, Judge Holcomb narrowly turned back the challenge of Bruce Blake in the November balloting. Challenged again in 1932, he easily prevailed to win a full six-year term on the high bench. His expertise in the legal and political aspects of irrigation rights and farming issues provided the court with leadership. However, his liberalism often found him isolated from most of his colleagues on other issues. He did not hesitate to dissent from his brethren on a number of economic and social issues. For example, in Langill’s Estate in 1920 he angrily chastised his fellow judges:
By the majority decision the disintegration of the probate code of 1917 is begun…. Their reasoning is wholly inconsistent and illogical … It is positively legislating and creating disqualifications which the statutes did not create … The majority opinion is manifestly wrong.
Fellow Judge Thomas E. Grady noted Holcomb’s liberal approach to supreme court litigation in these terms:
Judge Holcomb believed that the members of the court were to a high degree conservative in their approach to the judicial problems of the time, and had advocated a more liberal attitude, particularly with reference to matters of pleading and practice and the interpretation and application of remedial and social legislation.
In July 1938 Holcomb announced he would take advantage of the recent law allowing judges to retire on half pay and not seek another term. His salary was then $7,500. Hip trouble and a slight paralysis of the throat further prompted the retirement. After nearly twenty-four years, Justice Holcomb left the bench on January 9, 1939. He died at the age of eighty on September 13, 1948.
D. W. Durham, History of Spokane and the Inland Empire, vol. 2 (1912), pp. 696-697; Seattle Times, 4 Nov. 1928; memorial services, Washington Reports, vol. 36, 2d (1950), pp. xxv-xxxi.
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.