The End of an Era: James A. Redden Closes His Chambers

By Michele Friedman

Joan and James Redden ca. 1963 in the Oregon House of Representatives. Photo courtesy of Judge James Redden.

A remarkable chapter in Oregon history came to a quiet close on March 31, 2017, when, at the age of 88, Senior U.S. District Judge James A. Redden closed his judicial chambers and went home to be with his beloved high school sweetheart and wife of over 50 years, Joan. Judge Redden’s enormous contribution to the local and national legal community is well documented, though the public and the bar should note his public service included time in the military as well as work in both the legislative and executive branches of government.

Judge Redden was a prolific correspondent, and fortunately for all of us, kept copies of hundreds of letters sent and received over decades. More importantly, he has now donated his personal records to the Oregon Historical Society for future public access. Those documents reveal a personality rarely seen by the public since his 1980 appointment to the federal bench. But as any one of his colleagues or law clerks could tell you, the man is much more than a genuinely brilliant jurist. In addition to his intellect, he is profoundly humble, kind, thoughtful, and perhaps most notably, hilarious. His records reveal that he always took his work quite seriously but never himself, and a reasonably detailed history of the Boston Red Sox could be written based on his correspondence alone. If you were fortunate enough to visit his chambers you would note the Magic Eight Ball on his desk. A photograph of himself, photoshopped into a Red Sox uniform and huddle, was prominently displayed. A Dick Tracy action figure guarded the file case. In the early days, he kept a large calendar in chambers noting “Days Since Last Reversed.” He routinely ran in local 5- and 10-k races, and proudly reported that he was first in his class: white male federal judges over the age of 55. And a black and white photo autographed “with thanks,” of him with Bobby Kennedy took pride of place.

Oregon Treasurer James Redden.

Born in Massachusetts, Redden arrived in Portland, Oregon in 1955. He worked for a year as a title company clerk and as a claims adjuster before moving to Medford, where he quickly formed a partnership with Hugh Collins that lasted until 1973. In his spare time, Redden became a leader in Democratic politics, winning a Jackson County seat in the Oregon House of Representatives in 1963, and making lifelong friends with state and national politicians on both sides of the aisle. Redden was elected House Minority Leader in the 1967 session, and, as detailed in his oral history, was instrumental in drafting the bipartisan Oregon beach bill with Republican legislator Lee Johnson that guaranteed public beach access as a matter of zoning rather than as a matter of outright public ownership.

Jim Redden moved to the executive branch of government in 1969, serving as chair of the Public Employee Relations Board until 1972. In 1973 he was elected state Treasurer, where he claimed the best advice he received was to keep the debits near the window. In 1974 he made an unsuccessful run for Governor, and in 1976 was elected Attorney General. He was good friends with Oregon Congressman Robert Duncan, noting after a successful 1979 fund raiser that “they had a winning card (me, not you).” In another letter he urged Congressman Duncan to “in the future, [you] conduct yourself with the dignity befitting your position. On second thought, conduct yourself with dignity. In addition, I would like to know how you are doing on my raise?”

Appointment to the federal bench did not deter Redden’s personal comments. In 1982 he wrote to the lumberman, philanthropist, and Redmond Mayor Sam Johnson:  “I am certain that the advancement, in the legal world, of both the new [Oregon] Chief Justice [Berkeley “Bud” Lent] and the undersigned is directly attributable to our learning experience, at your knee, during meetings of the House Taxation Committee. It was only then that I learned how to artfully question witnesses and elicit the correct answer. Now, isn’t that right?”

Judge Redden’s judicial career included many famous, and infamous cases. Google American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks, WPPSS (Washington Public Power Supply Service), or one of his clerks’ favorites—the lengthy patent dispute over curly fries. But his favorite case, and the one for which he will always be remembered, is the ongoing dispute over the Columbia River basin salmonids and the Endangered Species Act, in which the parties include the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, federal government, more than a dozen local sovereign native tribes, and the National Wildlife Federation, among others. Judge Redden handled this case for more than ten years, ultimately finding three separate plans for managing the river and the dams inadequate. The case and the issues are artfully analyzed in “Practiced at the Art of Deception: The Failure of Columbia Basin Salmon Recovery Under the Endangered Species Act,” Michael C. Blumm, Erica J. Thorson, Joshua D. Smith, Environmental Law, Vol. 36, No. 3 (2006) . Perhaps the most legally significant ruling in the case occurred when Judge Redden, frustrated by years of minimal progress, ordered the parties to collaborate, a revolutionary order upheld by the Ninth Circuit, and carefully described in “The Role of the Judge in ESA Implementation: District Judge James Redden and the Columbia Basin Salmon Saga,” Michael C. Blumm, Aurora Paulsen.

Judge Malcolm Marsh, Prof. Brian Gray and Judge Owen Panner look on as Judge Redden meets Wasco Chief Nelson Wallulatum in October 2000.

Over the years, Judge Redden’s chambers filled, to his delight, with salmonid gifts. The public showered him with weird salmon poetry, salmon-shaped chocolates, battery-operated singing salmon, and public references to “Redden’s River.” For years he kept a couple of goldfish on the conference room table named after the lead attorneys in the fish case.

Judge Redden’s contributions to Oregon’s political, legal, and environmental history cannot be overstated. That he did this work with such pure delight, and joy, and humor is another of his gifts to all of us.