Born: Wednesday, May 24th, 1922
Birthplace: Seattle, Washington
Education: University of Santa Clara (1941)
Gonzaga University (1942)
University of Washington, B.A. (1948); LL.B. (1950)
Career: Municipal Court (1959-1964)
Superior Court (1965-1967)
Federal District Court (1971-1987)
Served: Monday, January 8th, 1968 to Thursday, May 13th, 1971
Political Party: Republican
Appointing Governor: Evans (Republican)In December 1963, Walter T. McGovern confronted a decision that would set the course for the remainder of his professional life. Several prominent Republicans and Seattle civic leaders had urged the young judge to resign from the municipal bench and run for mayor of Seattle. The suggestion obviously tempted McGovern:
I’ve thought about running for mayor considerably, but I compare it with being away from home and the family and I just cannot do it. My family comes first. As mayor you’re required to represent everybody in the city. You have got to be at the job all the time. Also I would have to leave the legal profession. I enjoy the judiciary. I’m not ready to leave it … I expect to run for higher judicial office.
At age forty-one, he decided to pursue a judicial career. It proved a fortunate choice.
McGovern was born in Seattle on May 24, 1922, the youngest son of Arthur and Ann Marie (Thies) McGovern. His father and uncle were partners in a salmon brokerage firm. The family moved to San Francisco when Walter was young and he became attached to another uncle, a successful attorney active in California politics after whom he was named and after whom he and one of his brothers modeled their careers. Walter’s parents urged their sons to follow in the uncle’s footsteps. The family returned to Seattle where Walter attended Seattle Prep, a private Catholic high school, graduating in 1940.
During World War II, McGovern, a University of Santa Clara student, enlisted in the officers’ training program for the navy and received his instruction at Gonzaga University in Spokane. While at Gonzaga he captained the varsity basketball team and was student body president. After receiving his commission he served in the Pacific theater from 1944 to 1946, achieving the rank of lieutenant junior grade and serving on a landing ship tank. The judge remained in the navy reserve and retired as captain. After the war, McGovern returned to Seattle and to the University of Washington, earning a B.A. degree in English and his law degree from the university’s law school in 1950.
At his first law job, with Kerr, McCord, Greenleaf, and Moen in Seattle, he became proficient at handling corporate and civil matters for the firm’s banking and insurance clients. The young attorney, active in political and professional affairs, served as Republican precinct committeeman, and president of the Young Republicans of King County and the Evergreen Republican Club. He attended nearly all Seattle-King County bar meetings and all state bar conventions, being named to numerous committees. In August 1956, when only thirty-four, Mayor Gordon Clinton appointed him pro tem judge of the Seattle traffic court. Two years later, after he had combined court sessions with an active private practice, members of the bar asked McGovern to seek a full-time position on the Seattle bench. At first he was reluctant to give up private practice:
Three members of the local bar association came and asked me if I would run for municipal court judgeship … and I said “no,” I was not interested. They came about two weeks later and again asked me to file against the incumbent and I said “no.” Another two weeks passed and they came and asked me and I said I would think it over and let them know on Monday. That weekend I told my wife what I was going to do and she was somewhat distraught. She knew how I enjoyed private practice. But when I told her of my decision she said, “let’s go.”
A committee of forty-four prominent attorneys, who regarded the incumbent as unsuitable, lent their support to McGovern’s effort to unseat the veteran. Endorsed by the Seattle-King County Bar Association by a vote of 604 to 424, he easily defeated the incumbent and a third candidate. Having garnered more than fifty percent of the vote in the primary, he and his supporters celebrated apparent victory. However, the state legislature, in authorizing municipal judgeships, had neglected to exempt from the general election primary winners who attracted more than half the votes. McGovern had to establish his campaign organization for another race in the general election, where he again defeated the incumbent by a substantial margin. It was the first time in a Seattle judicial election that a challenger had unseated an incumbent. McGovern easily won reelection to the municipal post in 1963. He served his tenure on the city bench in the criminal division.
While a municipal judge, many people touted McGovern as a mayoral aspirant. But in December 1963, he decided to stay in the judiciary. In July 1964, he announced his candidacy for the superior court and again challenged a veteran incumbent. With the backing of the bar association and the endorsement of a number of labor organizations, he overwhelmed his opponent in the September primary election and this time claimed victory without needing a runoff election.
In January 1967, Supreme Court Judge Charles Donworth reached the mandatory retirement age of seventy-five and would have to step down at the end of the year. Republican Governor Dan Evans, who a few months earlier had named Marshall Neill to the court, now had another opportunity to appoint a justice to the state’s court of last resort. He called Judge McGovern on the afternoon of December 4, 1967, to offer him the job, and McGovern readily accepted. McGovern had worked with the governor when Evans represented the Forty-third District in the state house of representatives. McGovern had strong Republican credentials, a proven judicial record, and the state bar association’s approval. No one opposed his appointment.
McGovern found judging at the appellate level significantly different from his municipal and superior court experiences. The municipal bench was “a court of human emotion.” Problems “between husbands and wives and among neighbors” dominated the docket. On the lower courts a judge had to be more “mediator than a penalizer.” On the superior court the
continuing responsibility of the judge is … to assure all of the parties that their rights are safeguarded. [The judge] does this by strictly following the law. In the trial court he is not making law, but rather deciding the facts in a case in which he has heard the evidence and applying the law to those factual findings. In a jury trial, he advises the jury of the law which is applicable to the case at hand.
But the supreme court was different:
[It] basically is a court of review, that deals entirely on points of law. We aren’t concerned with establishing facts … A good supreme court judge thinks continuously, works hard, acts independently and impartially, and is dedicated to cutting through the extraneous matters, and getting to the heart of the legal issue. It’s an arduous but rewarding task.
On the high bench, “everything has to be down in black and white,” while at the trial level you “think out loud as you speak.”
During McGovern’s three-and-a-half years on the state’s high bench he became known as a moderate, middle-of-the-road judge. One of his law clerks remembered with pleasure his short tenure with McGovern:
The most important reason I enjoyed my clerkship was the “teaching” and gracious personality of Justice McGovern. In addition to being very personable, McGovern shared opinion writing duties with me, sought my counsel on decisions which he authored individually and allowed a great deal of flexibility in terms of work hours and tasks … Even though it was sometimes difficult to recognize my contribution to the opinion, it is my belief that the Justice gave careful consideration to whatever view point I might have expressed.
Justice McGovern’s decisional style might best be described as “individual.” He relied most heavily upon his own knowledge of the law and upon clues provided by precedent. However, his “feeling for what is right” was blended into the decisional equation. These individual factors were more important as sources for decision than what McGovern learned from his discussions with the other justices, what the lawyers noted in their oral presentations and briefs, and what research his law clerks conducted.
The justice penned sixty-nine opinions for the court during his short tenure and filed seven dissents. Not committed to an excessive use of the dissent, he chose instead to discuss disagreement informally with his colleagues and include their concerns when drafting opinions. His former clerks stated that he would usually dissent when he felt strongly on an issue and had a chance to persuade some of his brethren to join him. His view of the role of dissent was “to win over the majority or to win more votes,” and to “lay the groundwork for the future” whereby in several years the court might accept his version. McGovern enjoyed drafting opinions but frowned upon a “law review” style of writing. An opinion should confront only those issues absolutely necessary to decide the case.
In 1971 President Richard Nixon sought Governor Daniel Evans’s counsel to fill the federal district court vacancy of retiring judge William Lindberg. Evans, along with Washington’s Republican Attorney General Slade Gorton, recommended Justice McGovern. John D. Ehrlichman, then an assistant to the president, also urged the president to nominate McGovern. The American Bar Association’s standing committee of the federal judiciary gave its tentative approval. On March 26 President Nixon sent McGovern’s name to the senate for confirmation. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously in favor of the appointment, and on April 21 the full senate-with Washington’s two Democratic senators fully approving-confirmed McGovern. On May 14, 1971, he became a federal district judge for the western district of Washington.
Judge McGovern was back on the trial bench which, admittedly, he enjoyed more than the cloistered and contemplative supreme court. Almost immediately his court became embroiled in important and controversial disputes. In July he presided over an important sex discrimination case. Within a few months he decided issues involving redistricting, conscientious objectors, oil spills, and price fixing. Conflicts over Indian fishing rights, super tankers in Puget Sound, water pollution disputes, Indian rights to sell fireworks and liquor on reservations, and war protestors at the Trident submarine base near Bremerton filled his court’s calendar. In 1979 McGovern assumed the post of chief judge for the district, and in 1987 took senior status. He still heard cases, but could adjust his case load.
McGovern married Rita Marie Olson, whom he had known since seventh grade, in June 1946, and had three children: Trina, Shawn, and Renee. His hobbies, which he shared with his family, were gardening and tennis. He served as director of several investment companies, and devoted time to charitable work with the Medina Children’s Service, Traveler’s Aid Society, Seattle Committee on Alcoholism, and the Women’s Studio Club rehabilitation center. He was a member of the Knights of Columbus and the Seattle Tennis Club.
McGovern’s oral history interview is in the supreme court collection, Washington State Archives. Also see Seattle-King County Bar Bulletin (Dec. 1987), p. 4, and (Je. 1988), p.5; Spokane Spokesman-Review, 10 Sept. 1985; and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 15 Nov. 1987.
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.