William Lee Dwyer was born in Tacoma, the only child of William E. and Ila Dwyer. His parents divorced when he was 5 years old and he and his mother moved to Seattle, where she worked as a stenographer to support them. While attending the University of Washington School of Law, Dwyer fell in love with classmate Vasiliki Asimakopulos, and they later married. Although he was an excellent student, poor attendance prevented his graduation, and he finished his law studies at New York University. Back in Washington state, Dwyer clerked for a State Supreme Court justice, then opened a small practice with UW classmate Gordon Culp (1926-2006). The firm grew and prospered, and Dwyer would represent a broad range of clients in some of the region's most memorable litigation, earning a reputation as a masterful trial attorney. He was nominated for a seat on the federal district court in Seattle in 1986 and confirmed by the Senate in 1987. During his years on the bench, Dwyer's reputation for intelligence, humility, compassion, and fairness was only burnished. Some of his decisions touched on the most pressing issues of the day, and the meticulous research and sound reasoning of his opinions gave some the status of legal landmarks. Judge Dwyer was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in the 1990s, and later with lung cancer. He died on February 12, 2002, and is remembered as one of the finest litigators and best judges ever to come out of the Northwest.
From Modest Beginnings
William Lee Dwyer was born on March 26, 1929. The family was of modest means; his father worked as a truck driver and later as a carpenter. His parents divorced when "Bill," as he was always called, was 5 years old. He and his mother moved to Seattle, where she found work as a stenographer. Dwyer was able to maintain close ties with his father as well; many years and many accomplishments later, he would recall:
"I admire both my parents very much. I think they both gave me a good model for the main virtues -- honesty, hard work and so on ... . What early life taught me, I guess, was the lesson that what we call ordinary people -- people who are not wealthy, powerful, well-educated -- are entitled to just as much dignity and respect and certainly earn as much affection as anybody else. Often more so" ("The Law and Mr. Dwyer ... ").
After graduating from Queen Anne High School in 1946, Dwyer started his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington, working after school driving trucks and driving taxis, waiting tables and washing dishes. He took courses in several subjects, including economics, forestry, and journalism. He considered a career in the latter and worked as a copyboy at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and as a student reporter for the UW Daily.
For the Daily, Dwyer helped report on the 1948 hearings of the Canwell Committee, an investigative body of the Washington State Legislature that set up shop in Seattle to ferret out alleged communists on the University of Washington faculty. The committee was headed by Albert Canwell (1907-2002) of Spokane, a one-term member of the Washington State House of Representatives. When the Canwell Committee was done, three professors had lost their jobs, never to work in academia again; several others had their reputations severely sullied.
Fifteen years later, Bill Dwyer and Albert Canwell would again be in the same room. This time it was in a small Okanogan County courthouse, and Dwyer would be asking the questions.
An Almost-Accidental Lawyer
From all accounts, when he entered the University of Washington Dwyer had no thoughts of becoming a lawyer. Like many undergraduates, he was unsure of his future course and somewhat preoccupied by the extra-curricular activities that college offers to young men and women. Then a friend suggested that he sit in on a torts class taught by law professor John Richards, called "Black Jack" by his students. Dwyer did, and was hooked, later recalling:
"He was using the Socratic method, and there was something about the give and take between the professor and the students ... ." (Program)
Dwyer decided then and there that he wanted to go to law school. As his future wife remembered, "He never planned to be a lawyer. But when it happened, it fit him like a glove." Dwyer agreed, in similar words: "It turned out to be a lucky fit" (Program).
Dwyer excelled academically, earned good grades, and served on the prestigious law review. But in those days, law professors clung to an expectation that students, regardless of their innate abilities, would also attend classes. Dwyer often did not. He had jobs to work and a woman to romance -- Vasiliki Asimakopulos, a law student he met in one of his infrequent visits to evidence class. Two of his professors, including Richards (who also taught evidence), recognized no such exigencies and prevented his graduation by refusing to allow him to take the final exams in their courses.
Rather than fight with the law school, Dwyer earned a graduate fellowship at New York University. He and Vasiliki, now married, moved East, and Dwyer worked as an insurance adjuster for a year while finishing his law studies at NYU's night school. Vasiliki went to work for Pakistan's delegation to the United Nations and recalled that period as "an exciting time" (Interview).
After graduation from NYU, Dwyer was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Germany. From 1953 to 1956 he was an attorney in the Judge Advocate General's Corps and gained valuable experience trying courts-martial cases. He and Vasiliki then returned to Seattle, and Dwyer was selected to be a law clerk for Washington State Supreme Court Justice Charles Donworth (1892-1976).
Culp & Dwyer
Gordon Culp, a UW law-school classmate, had in the meantime opened a small law office in downtown Seattle. In 1957 he had an opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., to work for Senator Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983). He asked Dwyer, who was completing his clerkship with Justice Donworth, to tend to Culp's miniscule Seattle practice. As Vasiliki Dwyer remembered:
"Gordy talked to Bill about taking over his practice, which was very little. Gordy said, 'When I get back, we can talk about maybe going into practice together.' Bill took over, got close to Charlie Burdell, who was in the same building, Charlie then brought Bill into the Dave Beck case, and that was the beginning, really, of Bill's career" ("Culp, Gordon C. (1926-2006)").
Hard work counts, but luck never hurts. Dave Beck (1894-1993) was the powerful head of the Teamsters Union from 1952 to 1957; "Charlie" Burdell was Charles Burdell Sr. (1912-1973), a well-known Seattle trial lawyer of sterling reputation. In 1957, Beck hired Burdell to defend him against several criminal charges, and Burdell hired Dwyer to help. It was a highly publicized case, nationally as well as locally. Burdell and Dwyer were able to get the most serious charge against Beck (the alleged failure to pay $240,000 in taxes) dismissed, but other charges stuck and he was sentenced to five years in the penitentiary (he served less than two). Nonetheless, Dwyer had performed admirably in a high-profile case, a big first step in building a reputation and a practice and a harbinger of things to come.
When Culp returned from Washington, D.C., the small firm of Culp & Dwyer was born, with offices in the Hoge Building at 705 2nd Avenue in downtown Seattle. Many years later, Dwyer would admit:
"Culp & Dwyer had no clients, no visible prospects, and no particular reason for existing except that we wanted to practice law on our own" (Program).
Culp and Dwyer started out as most small practitioners do -- by taking on as clients just about anyone and any cause. They did divorces and adoptions, defended petty criminals and drafted contracts, wrote wills and probated estates. They were soon joined by another classmate, Murray B. Guterson (b. 1929). What law school hadn't taught, they learned on their own.
Culp eventually would specialize in putting together complex deals, often involving the public-power industry. Guterson took an interest in criminal-defense work, and this would become his specialty and the primary focus of his practice. Much of everything else fell to Dwyer, who soon earned a reputation for meticulous preparation and formidable trial skills.
The Goldmark Case
Bill Dwyer would litigate several significant and newsworthy cases over his career, but for human drama and political resonance none was more compelling than a battle fought out in a small courtroom in sparsely populated Okanogan County. His clients were John E. Goldmark (1917-1979) and Sally Goldmark (1907-1985), who were good friends of the Dwyers.
The Goldmarks were both from the East Coast, but after World War II had settled on a remote ranch in Okanogan County. In 1956 John Goldmark was elected as a Democrat to the Washington State House of Representatives. Although he was a progressive representing a largely conservative county, he easily won re-election in 1958 and 1960. But going into the 1962 election, things got ugly.
The roots of what was to ensue dated back to the 1930s. Several years before she met John, Sally had joined the U.S. Communist Party, motivated, as were many Americans at the time, by idealism and fear of Fascism rather than by ideology. She had quit her membership and severed all contacts with the party shortly after she and John married in 1942.
Albert Canwell, whom Bill Dwyer had seen in action back in 1948, had continued his anti-communist crusade as a private citizen after losing re-election to the legislature. Canwell learned of Sally Goldmark's long-ago Communist Party membership, and he and a few like-minded men waged a vicious and misleading campaign against her and her husband leading up to the 1962 election.
John Goldmark lost that election by a wide margin, and during a later visit to the ranch by Bill and Vasiliki Dwyer he showed the couple examples of what had been written about him and his wife. It was Dwyer's opinion that some of the statements were libelous, and he agreed to represent the Goldmarks in a defamation suit against Canwell and others who had been involved. The trial would be held in the Okanogan County courthouse in Omak with a judge from King County, Theodore Turner (1898-1992), presiding.
The trial lasted 43 days in front of a jury of Okanogan County residents. The defendants presented "expert" testimony about the alleged methods and means of communists and their alleged infiltration into government, academia, and the press. Truth is a complete defense to libel, and they attempted to show that the combination of Sally Goldmark's former membership in the Communist Party and John Goldmark's liberal stance in the State House of Representatives proved the truth of their allegations. Dwyer sought to prove that the couple's political beliefs were not at all subversive, but rather in line with those of the state Democratic Party.
It was a very tough case to be tried in a very conservative county, and it was only made tougher when, on November 22, 1963, in the early days of the trial, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963), an avowed Marxist and supporter of Fidel Castro's Cuba. The joining of Marxism and America's crime of the century was not helpful to the Goldmarks' case, to say the least.
The trial came to an end in mid-January, 1964. In his closing argument, Dwyer told the jury:
"They [the defendants] constructed a web of lies and miserable, unhappy speculation about people they didn't know and about whom they didn't care ... . I don't think in this state there has ever been such an example of people going so far and acting so viciously to ruin a man's name. They've said every conceivable dirty thing about that woman [Sally] they could say without being held in contempt of court" ("Goldmark Case Near Conclusion").
After several days' deliberation, the jury returned a verdict against all four of the individual defendants and awarded the Goldmarks $40,000 in damages, one of the largest libel judgments in state history up to that time. More important was the full vindication that the jury gave the Goldmarks. It was a sweet victory, even given what happened next. On March 9, 1964, less than two months after the verdict, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public figures (which the Goldmarks were, due to John's service in the legislature) must show that a defendant accused of defamation acted with actual malice or with reckless disregard for the truth. The verdict and award were set aside by the judge, who said he could not find sufficient evidence of actual malice. Although many disagreed with Judge Turner's conclusions, the Goldmarks felt vindicated by the jury's verdict and decided not to appeal.
The case and the publicity it generated would have a horrific consequence many years later. The Goldmarks' oldest son, Charles, his wife, and their two children were murdered in Seattle on Christmas Eve, 1985. The killer, David Lewis Rice (b. 1958), was an unbalanced loner who said he acted because he believed, falsely, that Charles was a communist, an idea he had picked up at meetings of a rightwing political group in Seattle. He is currently serving a life sentence for the crimes.
A Career of Notable Cases
Bill Dwyer went on to litigate a host of other important, if less dramatic, cases. Among the most notable:
- Representing a theater owner, Dwyer succeeded in having the City of Seattle's film censor board ruled unconstitutional in 1965.
- In 1968, working pro bono, Dwyer won acquittal on grand larceny charges filed against a Seattle Black Panther captain, Aaron Dixon (b. 1949). After the trial, Dwyer asked Dixon, "Now do you believe in the justice system?" Dixon replied, "No" ("Tilting Windmills With the Law").
- In one of several anti-trust suits, which became his specialty, Dwyer in 1975 settled for $13.5 million a class-action brought on behalf of Washington mint farmers against the Wrigley chewing-gum company.
- Dwyer's compassion shone through in 1975 when he represented Seattle attorney Egil "Bud" Krogh (b. 1939), who sought reinstatement after being disbarred for his activities as one of Richard Nixon's (1919-1994) "White House plumbers." This was a covert group engaged in illegal activities, including the Watergate break-in, in support of the re-election of Nixon. Krogh won reinstatement and went on to become a partner in Dwyer's law firm. Dwyer would later say:
"I saw right away that he was a man of real character and integrity who had made a very bad mistake and had been caught in a difficult situation. And the thing that impressed me was that he took full responsibility for what had happened" ("The Law and Mr. Dwyer ... ").
- That Seattle today has a professional baseball team is in significant part due to Dwyer. The city's first American League team, the Pilots, was moved by the league to Milwaukee in March, 1970. Washington State Attorney General Slade Gorton (b. 1928), who had testified for the Goldmarks in the libel trial, retained Dwyer to represent the State in a suit against the league, and King County also signed on as his client. The case dragged on for years, but when it went to trial Dwyer's systematic dismantling of the league's witnesses was key to persuading the defendants to settle. As part of the settlement the league was expanded, and in 1976 Seattle was awarded the franchise that would become the Mariners.
- When Donald M. Drake Company, the original contractor hired to build Seattle's Kingdome (where the Mariners would first play), walked off the job in a dispute with King County, Dwyer represented the County in a breach of contract suit. It resulted in a $12.3 million judgment against Drake in 1978.
- In 1981, Dwyer won $10 million for independent logging companies in an anti-trust suit against major pulp-mill operators in Alaska.
- In another case he handled pro bono, Dwyer in 1982 represented Newspaper Guild members and others in an attempt to block The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from entering into a joint operating agreement. Dwyer won in the federal district court, but the decision was later overturned by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
- Representing 37 Seattle houseboat owners in 1983, Dwyer fought against multiple, simultaneous eviction notices from three owners of Lake Union docks. The owners eventually agreed to enter into long-term leases with Dwyer's clients, and the City adopted a floating-homes ordinance to provide houseboat owners protection from future evictions.
By 1986, Culp & Dwyer, now called Culp, Dwyer, Guterson & Grader, had grown to a 40-lawyer firm, and Bill Dwyer had secured his reputation as one of the top trial lawyers in the state. The nature of his cases reflected not only his interests, but also his empathy and compassion. Asked once about his choices of clients and his undiminished enthusiasm for the practice of law, Dwyer said:
"A lot of them were legal challenges. And a lot of them involved causes I had embraced. In a sense, every one was a favorite case because I would become so wrapped up in them, and I must say, so pleased to be in the company of my clients and my opponents" (Program).
From Bar to Bench
Dwyer's political allegiance was to the Democratic Party, and he was a man of decidedly liberal views. But his reputation for intelligence, fair-mindedness, and hard work was such that on March 6, 1986, Washington's two Republican senators, Slade Gorton and Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925), jointly nominated him for a seat on the federal District Court for the Western District of Washington. It was the height of the Reagan era, however, and conservatives in Congress were laboring hammer and tong to keep anyone with progressive tendencies and liberal views from serving on any federal court. Dwyer, who had been asked before to take a judgeship, was now ready:
"I'm happy at what I'm doing and I feel very lucky in what I've done. But I'm willing to take this job because it's right at the heart of the matter as far as justice is concerned" ("The Law and Mr. Dwyer ... ").
Local attorneys who had worked with and against Dwyer lined up to support his nomination. Just two of the many accolades he received when nominated:
"If there was one lawyer in the state of Washington that any lawyer or any judge would want to be their lawyer, I think it is Bill Dwyer. He's a man of total integrity, he's honest, he's bright, he's capable, he's hard-working, he's well-respected, he's reasonable." Seattle attorney Lem Howell ("The Law and Mr. Dwyer ... ").
"He's very much a defender of the human spirit and the freedom of the human spirit. He's a reader and a thinker. He'll be a wonderful judge.'' James Wilson, senior assistant attorney general and chief counsel for the University of Washington ("The Law and Mr. Dwyer ...").
Despite such praise, there was strong opposition in the U.S. Senate to Dwyer's nomination. In October 1986, Gorton agreed to vote for conservative judicial candidate Daniel A. Manion (b. 1942) in return for Republican support for Dwyer. Manion was confirmed by a 50-49 vote. Then the law of unintended consequences came into play. Democrats, fully disposed to vote for Dwyer, were so enraged by Gorton's vote for Manion that they removed Dwyer's name from the list of judicial nominees. Barbara Smith, press secretary to former Democratic U.S. Representative Brock Adams (1927-2004) who was then running against Gorton for the senate seat, explained:
"The issue isn't the competency of Bill Dwyer -- he's an excellent candidate. But Gorton put politics before principle, and delivered Manion to the bench. It's too bad" ("Democrats Sabotage Dwyer Nomination").
That killed the Dwyer nomination for 1986, but Gorton and other supporters pledged to try again the following year. Gorton lost his reelection bid to Adams, but Adams also supported Dwyer. His name was placed in the judicial hopper again in 1987, and this time Senator Evans threatened to block all of President Ronald Reagan's (1911-2004) judicial appointees if Dwyer was not included. He was, and Reagan even called Dwyer personally (and prematurely) to congratulate him. Conservative Republicans tried mightily to keep him off the bench. His chances were not helped when Senate Democrats on the Judiciary Committee refused to approve Reagan's Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork (1927-2012), on October 6, 1987.
Dwyer was to get his final grilling before the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 22, 1987. The proceedings had deteriorated to the point that a good portion of the session was devoted to legal advice that Dwyer had given to The Seattle Public Library. A German sex-education book entitled Show Me contained photos of naked pre-adolescents, and the library was concerned about the legality of providing it to patrons. Dwyer was consulted and issued the strictly legal opinion that carrying the book would not violate anti-pornography laws. It was a legal question, asked of a lawyer, and answered on the basis of legal precedent and not personal bias. But one opposing witness called the book "The Pedophiles' Bible," and the Republicans on the judiciary committee spent an inordinate amount of time grandstanding over the issue.
Dwyer, finally and nonetheless, was confirmed as a federal district court judge on November 5, 1987. After a long career fighting for the causes of individual clients, he was now in a position to fashion remedies that could have far wider consequence.
On the Bench
The federal district courts are trial courts, and they are where the rubber meets the road in the federal system. They are the lowest of the three federal courts of general jurisdiction, but it is often said that district court judges are more broadly influential than any others. In jury trials, a judge's rulings on evidence and choice of jury instructions can affect the outcome of any case. When sitting without a jury, federal district court judges are the sole "finders of fact," and what they determine to be the truth is, in almost every instance, accepted as a verity by the appellate courts. As courts of first impression, their judges often hear cases in which precedent is ambiguous or non-existent. Last but far from least, district court judges can in many cases order government to act, tell it how to act, or order it to stop acting. Their decisions are granted substantial deference by appellate courts, and district court decisions that are appealed (a relatively small percentage) will more often than not be sustained.
Compared to most state courts, federal district courts are run very strictly. Attorneys, rather than being free to roam around (a temptation to histrionics), must question witnesses and make arguments from behind a podium. Everyone stays in their place. Judge Dwyer's court was a little different at times. Although he maintained courtroom decorum, he wasn't often seated where the judge traditionally sits. In fact, he usually wasn't seated at all. Dwyer suffered from chronic back pain, and lawyers and litigants appearing before him for the first time would be surprised to find the judge standing, even kneeling, throughout the proceedings. But he had not been on the bench long before the attributes that made him an exemplary attorney also made him an exemplary judge. He was now in a position to rule on cases that could have both regional and national implications, and he would in the years to come build a record of far-reaching decisions in difficult cases. Among his accomplishment as a judge:
- The nation's first murder trial under a federal law making product tampering a crime was tried in Judge Dwyer's court. Stella Nickell (b. 1943) was convicted of murdering her husband and a woman she did not even know by poisoning Tylenol capsules and placing some of them back on store shelves. Dwyer sentenced her to 90 years in prison.
- In an opinion that reshaped regional government, Dwyer ruled that the method used to select council members to the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro) violated the Constitution's "one person, one vote" principle.
- Judge Dwyer, in a suit brought by the Seattle Audubon Society, halted the U.S. Forest Service's sale of logging rights in some national forests until a plan was implemented to protect spotted-owl populations. The forest service argued that its compliance with the Endangered Species Act relieved it of any obligation to plan for the "viability" of creatures not listed as "endangered" under that law. Dwyer disagreed, writing:
"The duty to maintain viable populations of existing vertebrate species requires planning for the entire biological community -- not for one species alone. It is distinct from the duty, under the ESA, to save a listed species from extinction" Seattle Audubon Society v. Evans, (Slip Opinion, p. 6).
This decision, which was sustained by the Court of Appeals, would have wide-ranging consequences for environmentalism and species preservation. His opinion was a clear and coherent interpretation of clashing statutes and is frequently cited by other courts.
- In an appeal by Willie Mak, one of the gunmen in Seattle's notorious Wah Mee Massacre of 1983, Dwyer set aside Mak's death penalty while sustaining his murder conviction, ruling that the performance of Mak's lawyers during the murder trial's penalty phase fell below that required by the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
- In 1994, Dwyer ruled that Washington State's term-limits legislation violated voters' constitutional freedom of choice, and was thus unconstitutional.
- The legacy of a rock 'n' roll legend came before Judge Dwyer in 1995 when he mediated a settlement in complex litigation over who owned the rights to the music of Seattle's late, great Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970).
- Another difficult case, and one in which his skill as a mediator was pivotal, was Vizcaino v. Microsoft. The tech giant had been saving millions of dollars by classifying many employees as temporary, even though they were bound by many of the same terms and conditions as full employees. With Dwyer pushing the parties along, the case was settled when Microsoft agreed to pay $97 million to settle all claims.
A Life Well-lived
In addition to his legal skills, Judge Dwyer was a compelling public speaker and a resolute defender of the profession on which he had made such an enduring mark. He wrote two books during his life, both of which reflected his love for the law and and for the American jury system in particular. The Goldmark Case, published in 1984, is an even-handed account of that epic legal battle. His second book, In the Hands of the People, from 2002, is both an informative history and a passionate defense of our jury system, which Dwyer called "America's most democratic institution." A third volume, Ipsi Dixit (How the World Looks to a Federal Judge), was published after his death, in 2007, and is a collection of many of his speeches.
On December 1, 1998, Judge Dwyer, suffering from Parkinson's Disease, took senior status on the district court, which reduced his caseload. In the spring of 2001 he was diagnosed with lung cancer, but continued working until January, 2002. He died, at home, the next month, on February 12. He left behind his wife, Vasiliki, and three children: Joanna Dwyer (b. 1961), Anthony E. Dwyer (b. 1962), and Charles M. Dwyer (b. 1967). His achievements had been recognized multiple times over the years, notably with the establishment in 2001 of the William L. Dwyer Endowed Chair at the UW School of Law, which decades earlier had denied him graduation. Upon his death, legions of men and women -- friends, colleagues, and legal foes alike -- spoke of him with great affection and respect.
When Bill Dwyer's life is reviewed, from childhood through judgehood, what stands out, both in his public actions and in the recollections of those who knew him, was his deep humanity. He knew, from personal experience, what it meant to struggle economically. His misadventures at the UW School of Law demonstrated that he was far from perfect, and he knew it. His compassion and empathy, mentioned by many both during his life and after his death, reflected both a deep understanding of human frailty and a belief in the possibility of redemption. His judicial opinions, while never less than intellectually rigorous, never lost sight of the practical and personal consequences that would ensue.
Explaining the enjoyment he found as a judge, Dwyer spoke in terms that could equally have been applied to his years as a trial attorney:
"The work is demanding, satisfying, and always interesting. Even the cases that look boring at the beginning turn out to be engaging once you get into them. And there is the gratifying knowledge that if you do the job right you can make a difference for the better in many lives, and add a few bricks and a little mortar to the great house of the law" (Program).
But it was longtime Seattle newspaper columnist Emmett Watson, a friend of Dwyer's and his partner in a Seattle oyster bar, who perhaps summed it up best, back when Dwyer's nomination to the court was in limbo:
"His own unspoken, private integrity is balanced by a tolerance and compassion that make him an easy mark for those in need of help ... . The air becomes less troubled when he is around. Good things happen when he is near" (Emmett Watson).