Born: Sunday, September 29th, 1907
Died: Thursday, September 21st, 2000
Birthplace: Lawton, Oklahoma
Education: University of Washington (1926-1931)
University of Washington, LL.B. (1934)
Career: Justice of the Peace (1937-1946)
City Attorney (1936-1946)
Superior Court (1946-1957)
Served: Friday, October 11th, 1957 to Monday, January 10th, 1977
Chief Justice: Monday, January 13th, 1969 to Monday, January 11th, 1971
Political Party: Democrat
Appointing Governor: Rosellini (Democrat)Robert Hunter always wanted to be a lawyer, following the example of his father, Alfred Lewis Hunter, a pioneer attorney, Democratic political activist, and Oklahoma state legislator. A star debater and orator at Lawton High School, Bob’s teams won regional contests and placed fourth in the state finals in his senior year, 1925. Upon completion of high school he and several friends packed their belongings in the back of a Model T pick-up and headed west to seek such fortunes as the land provided. Bob hoped to continue his education at Stanford University. In the meantime he accepted employment with his uncle, Captain Jack Vickers, in a Kennewick, Washington, apple orchard, starting as a picker and handyman, earning fifty cents a day plus room and board. With the apple season completed, his uncle and cousin convinced Hunter to enroll at the University of Washington in preparation for law school. Following their advice, he moved to Seattle and found a job washing dishes at a boarding house to help pay schooling costs.
Expenses outran earnings in the spring of 1927, prompting Hunter to answer a newspaper ad seeking salesmen for subscriptions to The Pictorial Review, a popular magazine of the time. He had considerable selling talent and that summer not only earned a respectable commission but also a $150 scholarship. That, along with earnings from working again for his uncle, allowed Hunter to return to the University of Washington in the winter quarter to continue his studies. The next summer he again excelled at selling the popular magazine. For each of the next several years Hunter alternated between going to school two quarters and selling magazine subscriptions and working odd jobs the remaining six months.
Finally, in 1934 the future judge graduated from the University of Washington School of Law. In February 1935 he passed the bar exam, but again sold magazines in Alaska to earn enough to open his own office. He joined an old classmate, Clifford Moe, in the practice of law in Grand Coulee, a boom town witnessing construction of the nation’s largest concrete dam. Hunter lived in a tent during part of the first difficult winter, but his practice began to prosper. He made a name for himself by winning awards for workers injured on the construction site. One appeal, known as the “Lunch Hour Case,” established a principle in labor law allowing workers to sue contracting companies if injured during lunch breaks.
Whenever state and national political figures visited the construction project, Bob Hunter hosted them, showing them around and introducing them to local Democrats. He became known as “Mr. Democrat” in Grant and Douglas counties, actively working in the congressional, senatorial, and gubernatorial campaigns of Mon C. Wallgren. He served as Grand Coulee City Attorney for 10 years, justice of the peace for Grant County for nine years, and city attorney for several surrounding incorporated areas. While city attorney, Hunter proved instrumental in convincing the state legislature to provide funds to pave Grand Coulee’s streets and to assist the city with a modern water system.
In 1946, after Governor Wallgren appointed Superior Court Judge Ed Schwellenbach to the state supreme court, he offered Hunter the vacant superior court position. Hunter had not sought a career on the bench, but accepted the Wallgren offer, thinking a short stint on the bench would be a “nice experience.” He remained “tremendously enthusiastic about practicing law,” and so certain that he would soon return to private practice that he failed to sell his law practice or close his Grand Coulee office. “I’ll be going back,” he asserted. “This is just a little experience.” The “little experience” lasted for 30 years.
Governor Albert Rosellini, Hunter’s classmate in law school, had worked with the judge frequently in Democratic politics. When Schwellenbach died in December 1957, Hunter became a prime candidate to fill the state’s high bench vacancy. Politics also assisted Hunter. The seat had traditionally gone to an eastern Washington resident. Having served throughout the state as visiting judge during eleven years on the superior court, he was well known to the legal profession. He had also served as secretary and president of the Superior Court Judges’ Association and had been the judges’ representative on the judicial council for seven years. His name appeared on the bar association’s approved list. Governor Rosellini selected his old friend and classmate and on October 11, 1957, Judge Hunter began his supreme court career.
Judge Hunter either ran unopposed or faced only token opposition in his campaigns. Even if confident of reelection, Hunter felt it necessary to campaign. Here is how he described his efforts in 1958:
Filings opened on July 1st of 1958, and I anxiously waited, hoping that I might be … lucky. As the thirty-day filing period transpired I grew more apprehensive. On the final day I thought I had it made, but just five minutes before the deadline, a prominent lawyer from Seattle came into the office of the Secretary of State and filed for my position. What a let-down. Now I would have to campaign in all 39 counties of the State…
I visited almost every county during the summer recess, and my campaign tactics fell into a pattern. First, I would go to the local paper with my picture and news story. I made a point to chat with the editor.
To keep my campaign non-partisan, but to touch base with political leaders, I called on both County Chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties.
In the larger cities, I arranged a short interview in the television stations, to be run during the news hour. My loyal court reporter in Ephrata, Marion Shutt, had mailed out to over 150 weekly newspapers in the state a short news story on the occasion of my initial appointment. During the election campaign, many of them reprinted the picture and details from my background.
In both of his contested elections – 1958 and 1970 – he received overwhelming support from the Seattle and state bar associations and, through his “old fashioned” campaigning, easily turned back his opposition in the primaries. Despite the costs of campaigning and time lost from court business, Judge Hunter regarded the popular election of judges as desirable. It “keeps judges close to the public” he noted. “They have no tendency of becoming tyrannical or demagogic in any way. They are considerate of everyone’s rights and they are not just dealing with their conscience.”
Judge Hunter had a moderate bench philosophy and was a neutral on an activist-restraintist scale. Although he generally observed and protected individual rights in criminal cases, he also recognized society’s needs. For example in 1968 he stated:
I think the pendulum has swung as far as it will go and more likely will go in the other direction. I think [the justices] have gone as far as necessary in the protection of the rights of individuals. As far as I’m concerned I feel the decisions written by this court should not in any way extend the rights of the accused that have been established by the United States Supreme Court.
The judge’s decisional style involved working closely with his law clerk. According to one:
It was typically our procedure to sit down after the original briefing had been completed, and argue the case between ourselves. Each of us would take one of the two positions. At the conclusion, we would switch sides and re-argue the matter. Justice Hunter would then make a decision, as to his position on the case. Subsequent to oral argument and conference, the judge would inform me as to those areas he wished to discuss in his opinion. I would write a rough draft and then proceed to discuss it sentence by sentence with him. It was [his] belief that this close relationship … produced a better finished product.
Judge Hunter sought a collective judgment on each of the cases assigned him. He utilized conference notes extensively throughout the drafting process in order to take into account his colleagues’ concerns. Rarely did he pen a dissent.
Writing opinions never came easy. He envied such fellow judges as Frank Hale and Joseph Mallery who seemed to write effortlessly and often appeared to enjoy the task. He exercised great care in drafting opinions: “It was an eerie feeling to know that what you write today is the precedent for the law of tomorrow.” The judge aimed for brief opinions that would settle the issue but not discuss more factors than absolutely necessary. He admitted on occasion he would write a lengthy opinion in order to convince a recalcitrant colleague to stay with or join the majority.
Justice Hunter was particularly proud of his efforts as chief justice to gain approval for establishing the court of appeals. Within a few months of the governor’s signature on the bill authorizing the new court, he and his colleagues had written rules, provided support personnel, and obtained facilities for the new judges. A news release from the chief justice in 1970 described the efforts: “It was the highlight of my judicial career that, as Chief Justice, I had the privilege of inducting into office the twelve new members of this first Court of Appeals of our state.”
He was also proud to be a part of the reform effort establishing the bench-bar-press guidelines mutually agreed upon by the legal profession, newspaper editors, and judges developing rules to prevent a confrontation between the right to a fair trial and freedom of the press.
Justice Hunter, an unassuming person, often appeared out of place in the sometimes “stuffy” social circles of Olympia. After nineteen years in Olympia, he and his wife Maureen returned to their quiet home in Ephrata, a small city just over the mountains from Seattle. Fishing, hunting, gardening, and socializing with neighbors and friends from Grand Coulee days appealed more to the Hunters than the bustle of Olympia.
Justice Hunter was a member of Lions International, Washington State Grange, Elks, Eagles, and Moose, and was past grand master of Odd Fellows. He was also a member of Alpha Sigma Phi college fraternity and Phi Alpha Delta law fraternity.
Bob and Maureen Neary married on Christmas Day, 1938. They were the parents of three daughters and one son.
See Hunter’s oral history interview in the supreme court collection, Washington State Archives, and the Hunter scrapbook, same collection. Also see Hunter, “The Practice of Law in the early days of Grand Coulee, 1935-1946,” Pacific Northwest Forum (Fall 1988), pp. 3-17; Hunter, “The Practice of Judging with the Superior and Supreme Courts of Washington,” Pacific Northwest Forum (Winter 1989), pp. 2-23; Moses Lake Herald, 11 Nov. 1988; Seattle Times, 22 Dec. 1968; Wenatchee Daily World, 10 Oct. 1957; and The Star (Grand Coulee), 6 Feb. 1969.
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.