Born: Wednesday, March 26th, 1902
Died: Saturday, January 15th, 1955
Birthplace: Alden, Minnesota
Education: Carleton College
University of Minnesota, LL.B. (1924)
Career: Justice of the Peace and Police Judge (1926-1936)
Superior Court (1936-1951)
Served: Monday, September 10th, 1951 to Saturday, January 15th, 1955
Political Party: Republican
Appointing Governor: Langlie (Republican)Ralph Oliver Olson was born in Alden, Minnesota, on March 26, 1902, the son of Ralph O. and Genevieve (Larson) Olson. The elder Olson, a prominent banker, lost everything in the crash of 1929 and spent the remainder of his life repaying those who had money in his bank when it failed. After graduation at age sixteen from St. Cloud High School, the younger Olson did undergraduate work at Carleton College and then went to law school at the University of Minnesota, earning his LL.B. with honors in 1924. He also won recognition at Minnesota as a second-team All-American football player. Immediately after graduating from the school of law, Olson, having tired of Minnesota’s severe winters, traveled the length of the west coast seeking an ideal location to live and work. He chose Bellingham, a town with few lawyers and abundant recreational opportunities.
Olson married Clara Louise Moore of St. Cloud in 1924 and she accompanied her husband to Washington. They had three children: Phyllis Anne, Charles Ralph, and Dan Ralph. Their sons excelled in athletics at the University of Washington and both graduated from its school of law.
Olson passed the Washington bar exam in 1924. Two years later he won election as a part-time municipal judge, serving until 1936 when he was elected to the superior court for Whatcom and Island counties. Judge Olson became especially interested in the problems of young people in his community. He helped organize summer youth programs and originated a scholarship fund with the University Club of Bellingham.
A Republican, Olson participated only minimally in politics, although he did run unsuccessfully for mayor of Bellingham. Olson gained his reputation from work on the bench rather than political activities or his private law practice. Judging fit his talents well. He served as president of the Superior Court Judges’ Association in 1947 and judges and lawyers throughout the state knew him because of Washington’s visiting judges’ system. When Judge Walter Beals resigned from the supreme court, Governor Arthur Langlie appointed Olson to fill the vacancy. He was forty-nine years old.
Two factors favored Olson’s selection. First, some had criticized Langlie because none of his recent appointees came from the judicial ranks. Olson, on the other hand, had served on the bench for a quarter of a century. In an effort to add geographical balance to the court, the governor needed to choose someone from outside King and Spokane counties. As an established member of the Bellingham community, Olson qualified here, too. A member of the bar selection committee that recommended Olson recalled: “I do not think there were any political considerations as such given to his appointment and feel it probably was more a geographical recommendation of a highly considered person.”
Olson, a tall man with a friendly demeanor and without any pretentiousness, ran unopposed for election in 1952. Judge Edgar Schwellenbach, who served with Olson, recalled the judge’s working habits:
He was one of the hardest working members of the court. He had a set pattern for the review of each case assigned to him. He read the record. He became familiar with the facts. He studied the briefs and appreciated the issues involved. He read every decision, text and periodical on the particular subject. In each case he asked himself two questions: What are the facts? What is the law? Not what should the law be, but what actually is the law? Having answered those two questions, he proceeded to apply the law to the facts.
Olson was moderate in his legal and political philosophy and a restraintist in his jurisprudence. Schwellenbach continued:
Experience had convinced him that [justice] could best be accomplished by relying on precedent, upon the decisions of other judges who had previously been confronted with the same or similar problems, rather than by attempting to do justice in each individual case. He realized that the latter procedure, no matter how well intentioned, would create a chaotic condition in the law with the result that attorneys could not advise their clients, and trial judges would have difficulty in conducting their trials.
Judge Olson’s use of law clerks reflected his long history of working with young adults and his relationship with his own children. First it was a student-teacher relationship. As the clerk gained knowledge and confidence, the relationship became more a partnership. According to one of his law clerks:
Judge Olson had a different style of working with his clerk than the other judges on the court. After reading the briefs and transcripts and hearing the oral arguments, he and I would work together on the numerous drafts of an opinion before it was signed and circulated. We customarily did the research together and had many spirited discussions regarding the applicable law.
Olsen’s clerks served as sounding boards, listening, commenting, suggesting, and criticizing – but not creating. The clerk researched and wrote notes in preparation for give-and-take sessions with the judge. According to a former clerk, Olson had very definite views on each case assigned to him. He would take great pains to keep his opinions short and directly to the issue.”
Judge Olson infrequently dissented, choosing to persuade through informal discussions and well researched opinions. For example, in the 1952-1953 terms Olson led his colleagues in writing for the court. He averaged thirty-five opinions per year, above the court average of twenty-seven. From his moderate perspective, he tended to provide the swing vote in divided cases. He and Judge Frank Weaver held the middle-of-the-road positions on the 1950s bench, agreeing with each other most of the time and disagreeing most frequently with liberal Judge Robert Finley and conservative Judge Thomas Grady.
Olson belonged to the Order of Coif, Phi Delta Phi, Beta Theta Pi and the Bellingham University Club. An avid angler, he tied his own trout and steelhead flies and, when each proved its worth, retired it to a display case with a record of date, location, length, and weight of fish caught. Many people remarked on his ability to “read” a river for the best steelhead spots.
Without warning, Judge Olson collapsed at his Olympia home of a brain aneurysm and passed away on January 15, 1955. He was fifty-two years old.
See the Charles and Dan Olson oral history interviews in the supreme court collection Washington State Archives; memorial services, Washington Reports, vol. 46, 2d (1955): pp. xxx-xxxiv; C. W. Taylor, Eminent Judges and Lawyers of the Northwest (1954), p. 59, and Charles Sheldon, The Washington Supreme Court: What it was Like Fifty Years Ago,” Gonzaga Law Review, vol. 19 (1983-1984), pp. 231-263.
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.