From Whizbang to the Federal Bench and the “Best Saddle in the Arena”: Celebrating the Remarkable Life of Judge Owen M. Panner (July 28,1924– December 20, 2018)

District of Oregon Federal Defender Lisa Hay said Judge Panner was revered by the criminal defense community and substantively ahead of his time when he ruled the federal sentencing guidelines unconstitutional a year before the Supreme Court did. He also supported and mentored woman lawyers at every opportunity, including when he swiftly corrected a male lawyer in court who addressed Emily Simon, one of the few women defending criminal cases in federal court at the time, by her first name!

Judge Brown read portions of a letter from Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, who was a young assistant U.S. attorney when Judge Panner joined the court. Ellen shared a story about having to ask Judge Panner for accommodation to nurse her new baby ahead of a long trial with Judge Panner in Pendleton. She had never been more nervous in her life leading up to the request, which she said was not really done in those days. Without missing a beat, his response was, “Well, you will just have to tell me what your needs are.” She says she will never forget those words, as they were music to her ears.

Owen Panner’s long-time friend, Ron Palasek, shared Panner’s love of Arabian horses and attributed Panner’s success as great trial lawyer and judge to his ability to handle horses. Panner became president of the Arabian Horse Association because of his inherent ability to get a room of strong opinions to come around to his position.

Judge Owen Panner, 2005, enjoying a speaker at the USDCHS Annual Picnic. Photo by Owen Schmidt

As the program neared completion, Portland trial lawyer Denny Rawlinson offered an Irish prayer and toast. Denny was instrumental in establishing the Owen M. Panner Professionalism Award 25 years ago, now awarded annually by the Oregon State Bar Litigation Section and intended to honor the best in our profession. The award was named for “Judge Owen M. Panner” as “no one represents the best in all of us better than Owen Murphy Panner.” Denny also described the Irish “Blessing of Light” which comes from love of “family, friends, and good fellowship.” Denny attested that Judge Panner knew the importance of the Blessing of Light and raised his glass of Early Times bourbon, (Judge Panner’s favorite), and offered this toast: “May the blessing of light be on you, light within and light without, shall the sun shine down to warm your heart.”

In a poignant show of respect, a saddled, riderless horse with backward-facing boots was led around the arena, to a quiet standing ovation, while Rick and Houston played and sang, “When I get to Where I’m Going,” by George Teren and Rivers Rutherford. It was a moving symbol of a beloved, fallen leader who will ride no more.

Judge Brown concluded the program by reading a letter from U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, who wrote, “Today we gather to honor my friend, Judge Owen Panner. Judge Panner was recognized as one of Oregon’s most outstanding, influential, and long-serving judges. His impact will be felt for many, many years to come.” Molly McCarthy from Senator Wyden’s office presented Nancy Panner with a flag that was flown over the United States Capitol in Judge Panner’s memory.

Judge Brown then made a motion to adjourn, which was, of course, granted by Judge Panner from his “best seat in the arena.”

Owen Murphy Panner was a man of deep faith. He knew God was ready for him. He taught us all many lessons about the law and life. He inspired us to be better judges, better lawyers, and most of all, better people. We will all miss the twinkle in his eyes. Judge Simon said it well: “There is a bright new star in heaven. Rest in Peace, Dear Friend.”

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