Born: Sunday, May 12th, 1872
Died: Wednesday, August 3rd, 1938
Birthplace: West Milton, Ohio
Education: Earlham College (1892-1895; 1897)
University of Tennessee (1898)
Career: Superior Court (1912-1921)
Assistant Attorney General (1933)
Supervisor of State Inheritance Tax Division (1933-1938)
Served: Monday, January 8th, 1923 to Monday, January 12th, 1925
Political Party: DemocratWilliam Harrison Pemberton was born in the village of West Milton on the Stillwater River in west-central Ohio on May 12, 1872, the youngest of five children of Joseph and Sydnia (Pearson) Pemberton. His father, a Quaker minister, raised the children in a strict but loving Quaker atmosphere. “Will” attended Earlham College, a small Quaker institution in Earlham, Indiana, where he excelled in debate, played varsity football, and displayed the independence of thought that characterized his later life. He also attended the University of Tennessee for a short time, permitting him to be admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1898.
Pemberton married Loie Thomas on March 14, 1897; their children were Joseph, Mary, Katherine, and William. Loie Pemberton, a state officer in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) after they moved to Washington, had charge of the Loyal Temperance Legion in Whatcom and Thurston counties. Although the judge did not believe strongly in organized religion, he and Loie participated in the local Methodist Church where he often conducted Bible classes.
After moving to Bellingham, the Washington bar admitted him in 1902 by virtue of his Tennessee license. Pemberton began practicing law as a partner in the firm of Neterer, Pemberton, and Sather, and later with Robinson and Pemberton, serving mostly workers seeking redress from employers. Respect and support for working people came easy to this son of a Quaker who had known hard times and manual labor. He developed a reputation for persistence and stubbornness.
Pemberton was initially loyal to the Republican party but, after an abortive run for mayor of Bellingham, he permanently switched to the Democrats and supported William Jennings Bryan.
Pemberton, elected Whatcom County Superior Court judge in 1912, won reelection in 1916 with strong labor support. While serving on the superior court bench, Pemberton made his first run for the supreme court in 1914, losing the general election to Stephen Chadwick. Pemberton based his campaign on three promises: first, “protecting the people in their constitutional rights”; second, “the trial of law suits on the merits instead of upon technicalities”; and third, “absolute and unbiased justice between the people and their interests.”
In 1915 Governor Ernest Lister seriously considered him for appointment to the vacancy created by Judge Frederick Bausman’s resignation. Lister received a number of endorsements for Pemberton from newspaper editors, church groups, the Women’s Good Government League, the WCTU, and Northwestern National Bank, but selected J. Stanley Webster. In 1918 Pemberton again campaigned for the high bench, made it to the final ballot, but lost in November by nearly 24,000 votes. With wide support from labor, church organizations, and the Grange, he finally won in 1922, defeating the appointed Judge Chester Hovey for the two years remaining in Wallace Mount’s term.
Pemberton’s short tenure on the court was characterized by many dissents and a liberal stance regarding labor issues. His personality as much as his legal views tended to isolate him from his brethren. Alan Gallagher’s study of Pemberton places the judge’s views in context:
Such a judge of liberal and democratic sympathies in a conservative and Republican period, a supporter of regulation of business in an age which worshipped business, a supporter of labor and the working men in an age which hated and feared them, a supporter of juries in the face of replacement of their decisions by judges elected or selected by ‘interests’ was clearly not going to be acceptable to the business community and organized bar.
Pemberton’s liberal stance in a number of key cases, and fear that if he remained the court might turn to the left, forced a coalition of establishment members to work for his defeat in 1924. The Seattle and state bar associations, businesses, and public power opponents backed popular Tacoma Superior Court Judge William Askren, who swamped the incumbent by more than 70,000 votes. Two years later Pemberton attempted to return to the high court, but a similar coalition succeeded in defeating him.
In 1932 the judge ran for the Democratic nomination for governor, losing to the eventual winner, Clarence Martin. In 1933 he served as a special assistant to the state attorney general in charge of prosecuting price-fixing among oil companies. Governor Martin then selected him as Washington state supervisor of the inheritance tax division, a post he retained until 1938. Remaining active in Democratic politics, Pemberton made an abortive attempt to gain his party’s nomination for the U. S. Senate in 1934 but withdrew at the last moment.
While on a fishing trip in the summer of 1938 Pemberton, an avid outdoorsman, contracted pneumonia. Released from the hospital after a short stay, he visited his son in Bellingham but suffered a sudden relapse and died on August 3.
Alan Gallagher summarized the judge’s career:
He proved a witness and standard-bearer for principles and interests which would not come into combination and power until the 1930s … Given his Quaker background, progressive beliefs, love of battle, respect for plain sense and language and the working man, he was a witness to values for which the times were not yet ready.
Alan L. Gallagher, “William Pemberton, A Biography,” Pemberton file, supreme court collection, Washington State Archives; Gallagher, “The Fighting Judge,” Washington State Bar News, vol. 43 (1989), pp. 15-20; C. W. Taylor, Eminent Judges and Lawyers of the Northwest (1954), p. 373; Seattle Times, 3 Aug. 1938.
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.