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Thursday, November 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:39 A.M.

James Dolliver, 1924-2004: High-court justice helped guide state with fairness, wit

By Craig Welch
Seattle Times staff reporter

BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Supreme Court Justice James Dolliver used his sense of duty and humor to help shape policy on state issues ranging from pay equality to racial integration.
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James Dolliver, whose political savvy helped guide Gov. Dan Evans during the tumultuous 1960s, and whose piercing curiosity helped make him the state Supreme Court's intellectual heavyweight for almost a quarter century, died yesterday at his home in Olympia after a long illness. He was 80.

During 50 years of public service, Justice Dolliver helped shape policy on some of the state's most volatile issues, from pay equality for women to racial integration in labor unions to public-school financing.

Whether presiding over court battles about the death penalty — which he vehemently opposed — or umpiring neighborhood children's ballgames, the moderate Republican had a sense of duty and fairness, and disarming humor. (He once jumped out of a cake to celebrate the birthday of a former colleague.)

While he was chief of staff to Evans, several thousand angry union members gathered in Olympia and menacingly chanted "Evans, Evans." It was Justice Dolliver who urged the governor to open his remarks by thanking the throng for celebrating his birthday.

"It broke the crowd up," said former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, who served with Justice Dolliver under Evans. "Two minutes earlier, they had been shouting obscenities; now they're all laughing."

During the 1960s, when the civil-rights movement was exploding and race riots were erupting in many cities, Justice Dolliver and his wife adopted two children of African-American heritage.

He was an energetic jurist with a bellowing voice and a gift for writing and delivering speeches.

After a debilitating stroke in 1993 left him unable to stand for more than eight minutes at a time, he served six more years on the court without ever missing a court date, said current Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, who has been a neighbor of Justice Dolliver's for more than 30 years.

"His whole professional life was devoted to public service, yet something that would have put most people into retirement couldn't shake him of that sense of duty," Alexander said.

Dismissed by the State Bar as too political and inexperienced when he was appointed to the high court in 1976 — he had never been a judge and had limited legal experience outside politics — Justice Dolliver eventually would stun even his detractors with his thoughtfulness and literary prowess. Court observers applauded him for his defense of individual liberties, environmental protection and judicial restraint.

When he retired in 1999, State Bar President M. Wayne Blair told The Seattle Times, "His interest in intellectual matters, a commitment to ideas, was different from everybody else on the court. I don't see that kind of intellectual mind on the court. That's not to say they aren't smart people, just different."

Born in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Justice Dolliver joined the Navy Air Corps in 1942 and flew search-and-rescue missions for the U.S. Coast Guard. While attending Swarthmore College, he worked summers as a ranger in Olympic National Park, falling so in love with Washington's geography that eventually he attended law school at the University of Washington. His father had urged him to "go to school where you want to live," Justice Dolliver said in a 180-page oral history published by the Secretary of State's Office.

His thirst for politics surfaced early — "perhaps that is the sort of thing that was bred into me," he said — when he served as law school student body president and head of the student bar association. After working in Washington, D.C., as an aide to U.S. Rep. Jack Westland, R-Everett, he became an attorney for the state House Republicans in Olympia, where he fell in with rising star Dan Evans, then a little-known legislator from Seattle.

In 1964, with Justice Dolliver as his campaign manager, Evans used fliers and television to unseat two-term Democratic Gov. Albert Rosellini. Justice Dolliver became Evans' chief of staff — and was dubbed "assistant governor" by some — and used that clout to shape a moderate agenda. The Evans administration even appointed future liberals such as Jennifer Belcher, who would later serve as a Democratic Commissioner of Public Lands, to powerful posts.

"Jim was absolutely the closest friend, adviser and confidant," Evans said. "I never felt uncomfortable leaving the state while I was governor, knowing he'd be there to answer any question."

A voracious reader, particularly of Civil War literature, and a hiker who climbed most of the state's major peaks, Justice Dolliver put all of his experience to use when he was appointed to the Supreme Court, and served as chief justice for two years in the mid-1980s.

In 1978, in what he considered his most important decision, he sided with the majority in a case limiting the use of local levies to fund school operations, helping to mandate that the Legislature fund basic education.

In 1995, he wrote a powerful opinion upholding the death penalty, even though he was personally opposed to it. But he added a personal plea.

"I write this separate concurrence to state my objection to the death penalty in principle and to express the hope that some day we will eliminate the death penalty and be saved from cries of vengeance, revenge or 'justice' and thus become a more truly civilized community of citizens," he wrote.

It was the kind of statement Justice Dolliver made frequently. Asked about his adoption of two non-white children, he once said, "I was of the view as a professional that ultimately one day all this racial nonsense is going to be a thing of the past."

Justice Dolliver said he was a Republican because of the Civil War, because the GOP stood for the union and against slavery.

"Growing up in Iowa, I had a very strong sense of identity," he once said. "My family was Methodist. We were Republicans. I identified myself through these institutions. I still do. I had no trouble ever knowing who I was. I had some doubts about how I was going to make a living. But I knew who I was."

Justice Dolliver is survived by his wife, Barbara, and six children. Arrangements for a memorial service are still pending.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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