Gus Solomon (1906-1987) III
Bill Long 10/17/04
Reflections on the "Second Half" of Solomon's Life
Solomon's life divides almost perfectly into two "halves"--from 1906-1950 where he grew up and became situated in the legal, political and religious life in Portland, and from 1950-1987 where he served on the bench as Judge and then Chief Judge of the United States District Court of Oregon. In this final mini-essay on Dr. Stein's manuscript, I will mention one point about Dr. Stein's style and method in writing and two issues that shaped Solomon's approach to judging and his role on the bench.
A Stylistic Feature
After reading and re-reading much of the manuscript, it dawned on me what made the book so readable and inviting. It is that Dr. Stein skillfully situates every aspect of Solomon's life and work he describes by citing scholarship on the significance of that issue in the broader legal and political culture. A few examples will illustrate this. For example, Solomon made many decisions in the 1960s and 1970s concerning political and prisoner rights, Indian affairs and environmental issues. Before introducing Solomon's approach to these issues, Stein cites the Columbia University historian Eric Foner: "The rights revolution completed the transforamtion of American freedom from a finite body of entitlements enjoyed mainly by white men into an open-ended claim to equality, recognition and self-determination." Once Solomon is located in the historical/legal/political landscape, he becomes more fully understandable.
Again, when discussing the huge increase in caseload at the District Court of Oregon in the 1960s and what it is to be a judge in that context, Stein cites Judge Posner of the 7th Circuit: "The appearance of fairness, the maintenance of authority, keeping things moving along--these become ends in themselves for the trial judge, and properly so." Throughout the manuscript, Stein skillfully contextualizes significant aspects of Gus Solomon's life.
Two Issues Relating To Judging
While anything like a complete review is impossible, two aspects of Solomon's style on and off the bench are illuminating. The first was his adoption in 1958 of 36 general rules covering a gamut of court and lawyer duties and procedures. This seemingly "unsexy" move not only gave Solomon an enormous degree of control over the flow of cases but it enabled him to hold lawyers accountable (and sometimes, it seems, terrorize them) for not following the spirit and the letter of his rules. The rules not only enabled him to maintain the fastest and most productive docket in the federal court system (one admirer called it the "Rocket Docket"), but gave him an excuse, it seems, for playing out his long-standing resentment at exclusion from the high society clubs and venues of the white Protestant establishment. That is, he could berate the establishment's "white shoe" or "blue stocking" lawyers with impunity and use the rules as the means by which he did it.
The other aspect of Solomon's behavior on the bench that jumped off the page at me was his behind-the-scenes (and not so subtle) attempt to get women and Jews as attorneys in Portland's larger firms and his effort to get Jews accepted into the exclusive downtown Portland clubs. He really came along at the right time for this, in a sense, as the 1960s brought breakdowns of all kinds of barriers and when pushed to the wall, these establishment institutions had no cogent justification for excluding women and Jews other than that "we have always done it."
The merits of the book are so significant that only two other points will be mentioned in conclusion. Stein gives us an illuminating (and unique) insight into Solomon's confirmation process as a federal judge in 1949-50, and shows the planning, support of family and friends, attacks by local and national figures against him and finally, his selection by Harry Truman for the post. Second, Solomon gives significant attention to comments by former Solomon clerks, who are now in senior positions in law firms, political science departments or professorships around the country, regarding his personality, beliefs and practices on the bench. This "human touch" helped to give valuable insight into an enigmatic character.
This being said, the only thing not present in this book is a probe into the way Solomon conducted his family life. It would have been helpful, though perhaps not possible, for Stein to have traced aspects of Solomon's influence on his wife and children or, at least, tried to give us a window into family life. One gets the impression that the absolute silence in the book regarding this theme is probably an indication that there is a lot there that would be terribly interesting but likely to painful to bring to light. Thus, we are given an excellent judicial biography, but there is silence where the humanistic reader would be most interested in hearing something--a lot--more.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long