Born: Saturday, December 7th, 1861
Died: Wednesday, May 15th, 1940
Birthplace: Kendall County, Illinois
Education: Northwestern University Law School LL.B. (1888)
Career: State Senate (1901-1905)
Served: Saturday, May 11th, 1918 to Monday, September 20th, 1937
Chief Justice: Monday, January 12th, 1925 to Monday, January 10th, 1927; Monday, January 12th, 1931 to Monday, January 9th, 1933
Political Party: Democrat
Appointing Governor: Lister (Democrat)Warren Tolman was born on a farm about two miles from Yorkville, Illinois, approximately fifty miles southwest of Chicago. He spent the first few years of his life on farms until the family moved to Geneva, Illinois, in 1866. His father briefly owned a grocery store before becoming an agent for a company selling illustrated family Bibles. Tolman’s education began in public schools in Geneva, but the family moved back to a farm near St. Charles, Illinois, after one year. Four years later they moved to another farm between Batavia and Aurora, Illinois. Warren’s farm work left little time for school. In the fall in 1874 he went to public school in Aurora, hoping to become a Baptist preacher, but he remained in high school only one year.
In 1877 Tolman’s father traded the Illinois farm for land in Nebraska. Warren worked in a greenhouse in Batavia until joining his father. After his father’s death in 1878, Warren managed the Nebraska family farm for four seasons before leaving for Chicago. Tolman worked in a farm machine factory, a carpet factory, and a creamery, interspersed with jobs as a carpenter, a farm hand, a railroad brakeman, and a well digger. Finally, in March 1886, he made the decision to seek a career in law. Judge Tolman later recalled these early days in a family scrapbook:
Went to E. B. Preston & Co. in the fall having in the meantime in March 1886 determined to study law, registered as a student in the office of my cousin Edgar B. Tolman. In March 1887 I made up my mind that the way to become a lawyer was to give up all other occupations so I went into Edgar’s office and since that time I have lived by the law alone. In the fall of ’87 I entered the senior class of the law school of Northwestern University of Chicago and graduated with the class of 1888 being admitted to the bar after examination before the Appellate Court at Springfield May 17th, 1888. Let my viscissitudes [sic] and uncertainties before I finally found my occupation be a lesson to you to determine as early as possible what your vocation is to be and then be content to begin at the bottom and stick to it until you reach the top. As soon as I graduated the firm became Tolman & Tolman and so continued for about 18 months when on the death of James R. Doolittle, Jr. we consolidated with the firm of Doolittle & McKey under the name of Doolittle, McKey & Tolman.
Tolman’s initial practice with the large Chicago law firm proved unsatisfying because, in his words, the nature “of the business forced [me] to be a sort of managing clerk,” which kept him “from going into court.” He left the firm in April 1890, forming a partnership with an old classmate, Charles B. Simons. With careful management and hard work he began to prosper, but his wife’s health deteriorated, prompting them to move to Spokane in October 1892 to avoid Chicago’s harsh winters. He joined Millard T. Hartson in the law firm of Hartson and Tolman, barely making ends meet financially. In 1895 he formed a partnership with Mark F. Mendenhall, but a year later went into sole practice, developing a stable clientele and some financial independence. In 1899 Herbert L. Kimball joined Tolman, a partnership that lasted seven years.
Tolman’s judicial career began with a temporary stint as acting municipal judge in 1897. His activity in the Democratic party brought him recognition that same year when he served as chairman of the city convention. The next year he became chairman of the Spokane County convention and served as permanent chairman of the county central committee for two years. In 1900 Tolman won election to the state senate for a four-year term. Beginning with the 1901 session, Tolman gained recognition as minority floor leader in the senate and later as chairman of the Democratic caucus of both houses. He also chaired the eastern Washington caucus of both parties in both houses. Perhaps his greatest contribution, however, came with his work on behalf of a state railroad commission.
Strong sentiment existed in eastern Washington for legislative regulation of freight rates to reduce costs of shipping wheat to the Seattle and Tacoma ports. Convinced the legislature had neither the time nor the expertise for setting rates and disclosing railroad abuses, Tolman advocated establishing an independent commission to protect the public interest. The Republicans introduced their version of the commission, but insisted that it be appointed by a Republican dominated board. Unable to win passage of his bill, Tolman led the fight against the Republican legislation. The 1901 session failed to approve a commission bill, but Tolman’s efforts gained him considerable respect from both sides of the legislative aisle. In subsequent legislative sessions Tolman proved instrumental in gaining approval of a railroad commission whose members the governor appointed. He successfully argued for an anti-gambling bill and supported other progressive legislation. His colleagues often consulted him on parliamentary procedure and looked to him as leader in many legislative struggles.
Tolman also gained recognition for his fight against a highly partisan reapportionment plan introduced at the last minute by the Republicans. One account of the legislative struggle described Tolman’s efforts:
At the beginning of the session the Republicans introduced a bill for the apportionment of the state into legislative districts, which was a mere skeleton. From time to time thereafter they caucused until they agreed upon the details of the bill and signed up two-thirds of the legislators in both the senate and house to pass the bill, and to pass it over the governor’s veto if necessary. The result of the Republican caucus was presented to the state senate at the hour of convening one morning, with a report from the committee recommending that it be made a special order of business for thirty minutes later, and be considered until passed, to the exclusion of other business. Mr. Tolman took the floor in opposition to the committee report, although two-thirds of the senate, being the Republican members, were pledged in writing to pass the bill. He succeeded by a straightforward appeal to their sense of fair play, in gaining twenty-four hours in which to prepare his points in opposition to the bill. The next day when it came on for final action he spoke from the time of convening at 10 o’clock in the morning until 4 o’clock in the afternoon, with only thirty minutes for luncheon and that, too, after the senate, about noon, brought in a rule forbidding further debate. He offered a minority report for the recommitment of the bill to the committee; offered a substitute for the bill; and then, one by one, offered a hundred and thirty-six different amendments to the bill, each one of which was germane; and in private conversation by the opposition, his points were all admitted to be well taken. His fight on that occasion was so conducted as to bring him the good will and admiration of his opponents, the congratulations of most of those who witnessed it and favorable newspaper comment throughout the state.
Although Democrats applied considerable pressure on Tolman to seek the party’s nomination for governor in 1904, he chose to return to full-time law practice and did not seek reelection to the senate. Elected a member of the Spokane school board between 1903 and 1906, he also served as a member of the Washington state commission to the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. In 1905 Governor John R. Rogers appointed him to consult with organizers of the Lewis and Clark Exposition to be held in Portland that year.
In 1906 the Democrats nominated Tolman as one of their candidates for the state supreme court, an honor he apparently did not seek. He was resoundingly defeated by the dominant Republican candidates. In 1910 he again received the party’s endorsement, and the nonpartisan league convention formally nominated him. He ran as an independent to protest the Republican’s reintroduction of partisanship to supreme court judge elections. Again, the Republicans dominated, turning back Tolman in his lackluster effort.
In 1914 Tolman mounted an extensive campaign for Congress from the Fifth District. The campaign emphasized his contribution to instituting the railroad commission, his progressive leadership in the legislature, and his commitment to the principles of Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom.” He failed to gain the Democratic nomination despite his apparent popularity.
Curiously, Tolman, reluctant to campaign for election to the supreme court, eagerly sought appointment to the same post. A realistic view that under the earlier partisan system a Democrat stood very little chance of winning probably explained his election reluctance. But with Democrat Ernest Lister in the governor’s mansion, Tolman stood a good chance of appointment. Tolman had strongly supported Lister and was a leader in the governor’s wing of the party. When Judge Overton Ellis resigned from the supreme court in May 1918, the governor selected Warren W. Tolman to fill the vacancy. In the 1918 election Tolman edged Walter French in the primary and ran unopposed in November. Tolman garnered the most votes of all the candidates in 1920, ran unopposed in 1926, and won a close and hard-fought race in 1932.
Tolman’s liberalism, evident from his legislative voting, carried over to his judicial decisions. In workers’ injury cases, criminal appeals, and government regulation disputes, he tended toward a liberal position. He often wrote more opinions than his colleagues, suggesting that his view tended to prevail in conference and during opinion circulation. He had a moderate dissent record. He served one term as chief justice in 1925. In 1937, after nearly twenty years on the state supreme court, he decided not to run again. Justice Tolman retired under the new judicial retirement act which provided that “any Supreme Court or Superior Court judge who has served for ten years and believes he is incapacitated from duty may apply for retirement.” His retirement pay amounted to one-half of his $7,500 annual salary.
Upon leaving the bench Tolman and his wife left immediately for California for an indefinite stay. Failing health confined Tolman to a hospital for several months during the early part of 1940. He died suddenly at home after a visit with his family on May 15, 1940.
Tolman married Maude Ingersoll of Chicago in April, 1889. She was active as vice president of the Olympia Women’s Club and was a moving force in the state association of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The Tolmans had one daughter and a son.
N. W. Durham, History of Spokane and the Inland Empire, vol. 3 (1912), pp. 481-485; W. C. Wolfe, Sketches of Washingtonians (1906), p. 292; “Reminiscences of Nancy Burns Tolman,” Tolman papers, Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections, Washington State University Library.
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.