Born: Friday, July 21st, 1876
Died: Sunday, September 18th, 1960
Birthplace: St. Paul, Minnesota
Education: University of Washington School of Law, LL.B. (1901)
Career: U.S. Army (1917-1919; 1946-1947)
Seattle Corporate Counsel (1923-1926)
Superior Court (1926-1928)
Served: Monday, April 16th, 1928 to Tuesday, October 1st, 1946
Also Served: Wednesday, September 10th, 1947 to Monday, September 10th, 1951
Chief Justice: Monday, January 9th, 1933 to Monday, January 14th, 1935; Monday, January 8th, 1945 to Tuesday, December 18th, 1945; Tuesday, May 7th, 1946 to Tuesday, October 1st, 1946
Political Party: Republican
Appointing Governor: Hartley (Republican)
Walter Beals was the son of James Burrill and Katherine (McMillan) Beals and a descendant of Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island Colony. His family also included a chief justice of Rhode Island’s supreme court, a chief justice of Minnesota’s high court, and a senator from that state. Beals attended public schools in St. Paul, graduating from high school in 1895. He began law studies under an attorney’s supervision, but ill health prompted his move to Bellingham, Washington. Within a year he became strong enough to work in a saw mill as a shingle weaver. In 1899 he entered the first law class at the University of Washington, graduating with a bachelor of laws degree in 1901. His first law practice was in partnership with Fred Rice Power. Upon the latter’s death, Beals continued to practice in Seattle. He became active in Republican affairs but did not seek public office.
Walter married Othilia Gertrude Carroll in 1904, a classmate at the University of Washington School of Law. She was the first woman graduate in the school’s first graduating class. She entered practice with her father and brother in Seattle, but resigned from practice when she married. However, during World War I she replaced her brother as Seattle justice of the peace when he went into the armed services. She resigned when her brother returned from the war. Active in civic affairs, she helped found the Seattle Milk Fund, served on the board of the Seattle Girl Scout Council, was state president and national vice president of the American Legion Auxiliary, and was active in the Red Cross. The couple had no children.
A member of the Washington National Guard from 1909, Walter Beals rose from an infantry private to the rank of major. He entered the U. S. Army in August 1917, serving in the judge advocate’s division. Beals spent sixteen months in France and saw action in the Meuse-Argonne offensive with American expeditionary forces. Promoted to lieutenant colonel and decorated with the Legion of Honor by France, he became one of the founders of the American Legion. Fluent in French, he remained in Europe for several months after the armistice as a liaison officer with the French government. Returning to Washington, Beals announced his intention to run for the state supreme court. In the September primary he failed to unseat any of the three incumbents, falling short by more than 30,000 votes.
In 1923 the Seattle city council appointed him first assistant corporate counsel. Three years later Governor Roland H. Hartley appointed him to the King County Superior Court, fulfilling a life-long ambition for the judge. Beals had earlier announced his intention to file against one of Hartley’s appointees on the King County bench, but when another incumbent resigned, the governor appointed Beals. Two years later, in April 1928, Hartley promoted Beals to the state’s high bench, an appointment widely praised. Beals received token opposition only once in his four reelection campaigns.
In October 1946 the Army ordered Judge Beals, a colonel in the reserves, into active duty as presiding judge in the trial of twenty-three Nazi doctors. On December 6, 1946, the trial opened in the musty, dark Nuremberg courtroom where the first major war crimes trials led to the conviction of Hermann Goering and other top Nazis. The twenty-three doctors charged with crimes against humanity had undertaken experiments involving sterilization, abortions, freezing, use of pressure chambers, and other torturous and fatal acts. The court found sixteen of the defendants guilty, sentencing seven to death while acquitting seven others. Of his experience at Nuremberg, Judge Beals reported:
I think the trials have been a healthy thing. The section of the court reserved for Germans was well filled throughout the trial, to a large extent by classes of high school and college students. The German lawyers especially like the American court procedure we followed. We went upon the principle that defendants were presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.
Europe’s 1946 winter was one of the worst on record. His cold, damp hotel, late hours, and a heavy workload took a toll on the judge, an ordeal from which he never completely recovered. Nonetheless, he was back on the bench when the state court’s term opened in September, 1947. In August 1951 Judge Beals announced his retirement after twenty-three years on the high bench.
One of his colleagues later recalled of Beals:
He was a great one to lobby for his opinions. On one occasion he reached my office before his opinion reached me via circulation.
Walter had one bad habit as a judge: his format for writing opinions resulted in opinions of great length which caused lawyers to groan. Instead of stating the general problem on appeal and then discussing and deciding the assignments of error on appeal, he started with a detailed analysis of the pleadings and the evidence, then an analysis of the judge’s memo opinion and the facts and judgment entered or of all the instructions given. By the time he got to the [issues] on appeal, they seemed almost inconsequential. He was clearly a great man and a fair-to-good judge.
The judge assumed a moderate-to-conservative stance in his opinions and often provided the swing vote on close decisions. He proved fairly reluctant to confront public policy issues, preferring to leave such decisions to the political branches of government.
Judge Beals served as state commander of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, and state president of the Sons of the American Revolution. He was a thirty-second degree Mason, a member of the Scottish Rite, and the Nile Temple of the Shrine. Over the years he accumulated a valuable collection of rare books and manuscripts, his Bible collection being one of the most complete held in private hands. He also had prized stamp, coin, and autograph collections. Cataloguing, displaying, and studying his collections occupied many of the judge’s hours during retirement. On September 18, 1960, Judge Beals died at his home in Olympia at the age of eighty-three. Othilia Beals passed away in May 1970 at age ninety-four.
C. S. Reinhart, The History of the Supreme Court of the Territory and State of Washington (n.d.), p. 81; Lloyd Spencer and Lancaster Pollard, A History of the State of Washington, vol. 4 (1937), p. 526; memorial services, Washington Reports, vol. 58, 2d (1961), pp. xvii-xxiv; and Seattle Times, 10 Aug. 1952.
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.