Honoring U.S. District Judge James Milton Burns


By Hon. Stacie F. Beckerman

Visitors to the Hatfield Courthouse may now view a historical display honoring the late U.S. District Judge James Milton Burns. The U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society and the Federal Bar Association (FBA), with funding from the Attorney Admissions Fund and in cooperation with Judge Burns’ family, have placed in the Jury Assembly Room a reproduction of Judge Burns’ portrait (the original of which hangs in Courtroom 14A), a short biography, and plaques honoring the annual recipients of the Judge James M. Burns Federal Practice Award since its inception in 2002. The display also includes Judge Burns’ judicial robe, first presented by the Burns family to U.S. District Judge Anna J. Brown at an FBA dinner honoring the Burns Award recipients.

Judge James Milton Burns served as a U.S. District Judge for the District of Oregon from June 2, 1972 until December 21, 2001, the date of his death. He served as Chief Judge from 1979 to 1984, and assumed senior status on November 24, 1989.

In prior Oregon Benchmarks newsletters, Judge Burns’ colleagues remembered him as a “poet, an artist with words” (U.S. District Judge Owen Panner) and a “truly compassionate judge” (former U.S. Attorney Sid Lezak). U.S. District Judge Malcolm F. Marsh recalled, “I shall not forget his kindness and availability when he welcomed me, both as a lawyer in cases before him and—even more—at the time of my entry on the court. He was clearly a friend who will be missed.”

A new display in the Jury Assembly Room of Portland’s Hatfield Courthouse honors Judge James M. Burns. Photo courtesy of Chad Tucker

Judge Burns’ daughter, Molly Burns Herrmann, recalls a few of Judge Burns’ signature phrases: “We need to get to the meat of the coconut!” and “Burns from Burns” (referring to his service as Harney County District Attorney in Burns, Oregon, where his secretary was Oregon’s future Secretary of State, Norma Paulus). Molly shared that her father frequently brought in roses or tulips for both staff and judges (and also brought in over-grown zucchini but those were way less attractive), he was known to buy ice cream for his juries, and he wore bow ties and short-sleeve shirts in the summer. Molly also noted that her father was known to address juries and litigants without his robe, and that his robe now hanging in the courthouse is but one view of “James the Just.”

Judge Brown first met Judge Burns when her law school classmate, Mary Burns Tomlinson, invited their study group to meet at the Burns’ home. Judge Burns mentored Brown from the beginning of her legal career, and she “fortunately” followed his advice to hire Sandra Dixon as her career law clerk. Judge Brown recalls Judge Burns frequently salted the text of his legal writings with his ironic wit, as when after several appellate remands in an environmental case involving southern Oregon’s Elk Creek Dam, Judge Burns began another order with “This dam case is back again….”

Judge Burns’ law clerk, Sandra Dixon, also recalls a few of her favorite Judge Burns’ phrases, including “Snicklefritz” (a reference to someone whose name escaped him at the moment), “Sing out because these ears are older than yours” (a request to those participating in court proceedings before him), and if he was a few minutes late to court, “Call me whatever you want, but don’t call me the late Judge Burns.” Finally, his parting words of affection were always, “God bless you.”

The tribute to Judge Burns will be a permanent display in the Jury Assembly Room on the second floor of the courthouse.

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