Memories of Judge Owen Panner: “A lawyer who made the rest of us proud to be lawyers”

Amy Kent
Law clerk to Judge Panner 1990-1992, 1994-1999

“As a brand new law clerk for Judge Panner, I was quite nervous submitting my first draft opinion resolving a motion.  I was relieved when returning it to me, he said, “Amy, this is just fine.”  However, he then added, “I want you to change only one word:  grant to deny!”  This epitomized the Owen Murphy Panner approach I observed in the seven years I clerked for him:  direct, to the point, and no BS.

 And then I rewrote the entire draft!”


Arlene Schnitzer
Founding board member and original chair of the Oral History Committee

“I very much enjoyed working with Judge Owen Panner on the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society’s Board of Directors.  It was invaluable to have his thoughts and support during stressful times.  He was a true gentleman and scholar.”


Marc Herzfeld
Longtime law clerk for Judge Panner

“I finished a 15-page draft opinion that would grant a criminal defendant’s motion to suppress on three separate grounds. I had been clerking for Judge Panner for almost 20 years by then. After reading the draft, the judge told me, “Marc, this is very good.” Right away I knew I was in trouble. He then said, “I want you to cut it in half.” I was a little surprised, but I managed to pare down the draft until it was seven pages. I realized that if I cut any more, it would just be headnotes (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). The judge did sign it then.”


Barnes H. Ellis
Portland attorney, recipient of  USDCHS 2018 Lifetime Service Award

Remembering Owen Panner

Owen Panner loved being a lawyer and loved being around lawyers.  This was true when he was a practitioner and when he was a judge.  His enthusiasm for the legal profession was contagious.  He always tried to see the larger context of legal disputes, and how the people involved—on both sides—were impacted.  And he always had a wonderful sense of humor that gave him perspective on life.

I first saw these qualities when I was a young lawyer assisting George Fraser representing a forest products manufacturer against an engineering firm relating to alleged deficiencies in a wood-waste boiler installation.  Owen was then in his mid-40s and already the leading lawyer in Bend.  What most impressed me was his ability simultaneously to master the technical and legal issues, gain the confidence of his client, work with his adversary, and relate to the jurors and to the court.  This was before mediation became the norm—the case settled because two experienced and able lawyers were able to be both adversaries and colleagues.

Who can forget the Bar Convention of 1976 in Seaside when Owen presented his committee’s “Report on Specialization”?  Although he himself practiced in a wide range of fields in central Oregon, he believed the legal profession state-wide would better serve clients if it formally specialized. Only the eloquence of John Ryan (“We are being fired upon by the Queen’s own troops!”) turned the convention against Owen’s report.  And Owen’s reaction?  He laughed at John’s eloquent oratory along with the rest of us.

Soon after he became a judge, he organized the Panner Inn of Court.  He did this to encourage plaintiffs’ lawyers to get to know defense lawyers, criminal lawyers to get to know civil lawyers, young lawyers to get to know older lawyers, male lawyers to get to know some of the remarkable women then entering the profession, and judges to get to know practitioners.  The Inn he founded, now 40 years old, still thrives.

As a judge he was able to solve major issues with great efficiency and fairness. In 1987 a group of investors put $39 million into Far West Federal, a troubled savings and loan based in Portland.  The investors did so relying on written assurances by the then federal regulators.  Two years later Congress passed a sweeping change in the law, and the new regulators shut the bank, claiming the prior assurances had no further effect, and told the investors they were out of luck.  Judge Panner cut through a mass of legal issues and issued a short, common-sense ruling returning the investors’ money.  He was affirmed on appeal.  The whole process took far less time at far less cost than parallel litigation involving other banks in the Federal Court of Claims.  He did this largely through conferences rather than formal hearings.  Throughout, he treated the lawyers on both sides with great courtesy.

As he aged, Owen laughed at mnemonic challenges.  “I still get 24-hour memory service.”

 Owen was a lawyer who made the rest of us proud to be lawyers.   

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