Born: Sunday, March 7th, 1880
Died: Saturday, January 20th, 1962
Birthplace: Versailles, Kentucky
Education: Central Kentucky University, B.A. (1900)
University of Michigan, LL.B. (1905)
Career: Deputy Prosecuting Attorney (1918)
Superior Court (1927-1932)
Regional Director, Office of Price Stabilization (1950-1952)
Served: Monday, May 23rd, 1932 to Monday, September 12th, 1949
Chief Justice: Monday, January 11th, 1937 to Monday, January 9th, 1939
Political Party: Republican
Appointing Governor: Hartley (Republican)William J. Steinert was born on March 7, 1880 in Versailles, Kentucky. His father, Philip Joseph, died when William was only seven years old, leaving his mother, Katherine, with full responsibility for William and his sister. An old friend, Dr. Cyrus Albertson, recalled the circumstances:
They were poor, but he had a mother with great courage and conviction and faith and love. She went out and worked hard with her hands, and all through the life of this man who was our friend he had a conviction that grew with the years and an appreciation of the struggle that many people had to go through in order to make ends meet, in order that life might fulfill some of its dreams and hope.
William’s mother earned money for the family as a seamstress while the children obtained what work they could. After attending public schools in Versailles, William enrolled at age seventeen in Central Kentucky University in Richmond, earning his B.A. degree in 1900. He taught in the normal school of S. P. Lees Institute for two years, saving money for a legal education. In 1902 he entered the University of Michigan Law School, graduating with a bachelor of laws in 1905. To pay back $300 borrowed to finish the last year of law school, William worked at Speery Seed Company before beginning his law practice in Louisville in 1906. After visiting an old classmate in Seattle during the Seattle-Yukon Exposition of 1909, Steinert decided to move there. He joined in a partnership with Dan Earle. During World War I he served as deputy county prosecutor for King County. Although he had affiliated with the Democratic party in Kentucky, Steinert became a Republican in Seattle.
King County received four new superior court positions in 1926 and Steinert applied to Governor Roland Hartley for an appointment. The governor turned him down. With the support of several leading attorneys, he ran for one of the positions the governor had denied him. He defeated his opponent handily in the September primaries and served on the superior bench with distinction until his appointment to the supreme court in 1932.
Judge Steinert gained public prominence as presiding judge in the trial of several officers of the Puget Sound Savings and Loan Association who were accused of banking fraud. He was praised in the local press for his use of “plain English” in his instructions to a deadlocked jury. They returned a guilty verdict within a short time.
When Judge Adam Beeler resigned from the high court to run for the U. S. Senate, Governor Hartley decided to appoint the popular and respected Steinert. Hartley needed the support of King County voters in his reelection bid, and selecting a popular Seattle judge with Republican credentials would enhance his chances. But Steinert refused the initial offer. He felt that a supreme court position would isolate him from people, the profession, and his fellow judges, and he enjoyed the give-and-take of the trial bench. Also, he would have to stand for election in the September primary, giving him only a few months to organize a statewide campaign. After discussing the move with his wife “Diggy” and members of the supreme court-especially his friend and former colleague, Walter Beals-he decided against accepting the appointment. Hartley offered the position to another King County judge, who also refused. The governor returned to Steinert with a second offer and the judge accepted, largely because of persistent encouragement from supreme court members. In May 1932, Judge Steinert began a career on the state’s high bench that would span seventeen years. He ran unopposed in 1932, 1938, and 1944, attesting to the esteem in which lawyers and judges held him.
In his years on the high bench, Steinert wrote 671 opinions covering sixty-seven volumes of the Washington Reports. He was almost universally regarded as a leading mind on the state’s appellate bench. Justice Matthew Hill remarked, after a review of Steinert’s decisions, that he
was literally amazed … to find 40 or 50 [opinions] of which, without any hesitation and without any doubt (he) could say: “Here are the leading cases in the State of Washington;” the cases that are most cited in the briefs and the cases most cited in our opinions-what we call landmark cases.
John N. Rupp, one of the first law clerks employed by the supreme court in 1937-a practice instituted by Judge Steinert-remembered the judge’s particular opinion style:
Many of Judge Steinert’s opinions were … admirable. But he was not afraid to go further and break new ground when he thought it sound and proper to do so. He was a scholarly man, though not pedantic in his scholarship, but sometimes he was a real pragmatist. He was not a great literary stylist nor a maker of memorable phrases, but he had a sound straight-forward literary style and was careful to say what he meant and to say it clearly and well.
Judge Steinert had a collegial approach to court deliberations. He consulted thoroughly with his law clerk and informally with his colleagues. One law clerk remembered:
The judge wanted to talk through an issue, to get criticisms, a fresh viewpoint, before he finally decided. He talked with other judges frequently and with me invariably.
He rarely wrote [a dissent.] Usually tore it up if he did.
Where there was a division in the Court, and a swing vote to be persuaded, he was diligent in attempting to win over the swing vote, to answer objections which had been raised in conference. Where there was a dissent, he tried to state the argument for the majority clearly, but he did not try to write the opinion with a view to changing the opinion of the dissenters.
Another former clerk recalled that the judge did “quite a bit of informal conferring” and tried “to get the others to agree with him or show him where he was wrong.”
The judge most often directed his substantial persuasive skills toward furthering a conservative and restraintist view of the law. Steinert was reluctant to upset legislative acts and to support excessive government regulation of business enterprises. He often won over his colleagues to this conservative-restraintist approach because of his impressive research into the issues and his pleasant, but persistent, informal discussions. Actually, he could almost always count on support from fellow conservative judges George Simpson, John Robinson, and Clyde Jeffers, which meant persuading only moderates such as Beals or James Geraghty to join him. His leadership held the court together during the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Judge Steinert found the idea of law clerks, an institution then common with many state courts of appeal and the U. S. Supreme Court, attractive because of his failing eyesight and the court’s increasing case load. The judge’s wife acted as his “clerk” at home, reading court records and briefs. The stresses and strains of judicial office affected his heart. Many observers attributed his health problems to the circumstances surrounding the Skagit County public utility case of 1947 and the subsequent public feud between judges William Millard and Joseph Mallery. The public airing of their disagreements disturbed Steinert, who retained the manners and courtly demeanor of a Kentucky gentleman. In 1949 Steinert and his friend, Clyde Jeffers, retired from the bench.
Steinert remained fairly active in law practice after his retirement. Employed as a “lawyers’ lawyer,” he served as counsel for other attorneys. Called back now and then to serve as judge pro tempore on the King County Superior Court, he also chaired several bar association committees, served as regional director of the Office of Price Stabilization, sat on the governor’s cross-sound transportation study committee, and for eight years chaired the state bar association’s board of examiners. The judge’s dedication and thoroughness became evident in the last few hours of his life. John N. Rupp recorded his wife’s recollections:
Mrs. Steinert told me about how the judge died. He was a member of the Board of Bar Examiners. The examination having been given, he had to grade the papers on the questions for which he was responsible. He had worked at the task for several days, with blue books spread all over the table at home. One morning she left to do some errands. He kissed her goodbye and said he was nearly through with the grading. She returned in about an hour and found him slumped in the chair, dead. Everyone of the books had been carefully graded.
The judge participated in civic and fraternal affairs during his life. As president of the Fremont Business Men’s Club he was instrumental in securing a public library for that Seattle neighborhood. He belonged to the Municipal League, Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Masons, Knights of Templar, Shriners, Elks, and Eagles. He was secretary of the Seattle Baseball Club for two years.
In June 1914, Steinert married Marian Augusta Miller, a teacher in the Seattle school system. The couple had no children. Judge Matt Hill paid tribute to the role “Diggy” Steinert played in the judge’s life:
We recognize that Mrs. Steinert was many times his eyes, as she read to him the briefs, and then the texts and the cases cited in the briefs. She had been his hands as well. It was her care that kept him with us over a considerable period of time.
Tribute, Superior Court, King County (24 Jan. 1962), pp. 1-10; memorial services, Washington Reports, vol. 60, 2d (1962), pp. xvii-xxii; Seattle Times, 8 Jy. 1926; Kari Kisler, “William J. Steinert and the 1939 Court,” Steinert file, supreme court collection, Washington State Archives.
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.