Remembering Justice Robert Utter, a captain of justice

Justice Utter was a revered jurist, who passed away earlier this month.

Justice Utter was a revered jurist, who passed away earlier this month. (Photo credit: Legacy Washington, Secr. of State)

Earlier this month, we lost a true captain of justice, retired Washington Supreme Court Justice Robert Utter, who died at age 84. I call him a “captain” because one of his passions was sailing.  Utter served as chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1979 to 1981. That period was when Washington State’s new death penalty legislation was tested in both the high court and the federal courts.

Paul Stritmatter, invited to speak this Wednesday in honor of the 25th anniversary of Sofie v. Fibreboard, will pay homage to this great figure in his speech. Utter authored the Sofie decision, which removed the cap on damages for personal injury plaintiffs, altering the landscape of tort law in this state.

Utter was a revered jurist for his constitutional analysis, for his high moral standards, and for his empathy of the plight of those less fortunate.  Beyond our state and country, he traveled to the far reaches of the globe and helped no less than 20 countries to implement justice systems and to adopt meaningful constitutions.

In 1992, the Dali Lama’s legal adviser called Utter to seek advice about how to draft the criminal law code for the Tibetan Government in Exile. Utter’s focus was on rehabilitation and dispute resolution.

In 1995, Utter resigned over what he perceived as the court’s failure by the court to adequately consider proportionality in weighing capital sentences. During the 1990’s, he also taught Constitutional Law at my alma mater, formerly the University of Puget Sound Law School (now Seattle University School of Law).

In 2003, in recognition of his work with judges in emerging democracies, Utter received the CEELI Volunteers Award from the American Bar Association. This award was one of the most meaningful awards for Utter, who explained, “It’s been a great privilege. The greatest has been to see the dedication of people around the world under incredible circumstances working to develop the rule of law in their own countries.” About a poll taken in Haiti in 2011, Utter wrote: “In a country with massive unemployment, brutality, corruption, poverty and a pervading sense of hopelessness, the primary wish was for the availability of justice for all and for a non-corrupt court system… The fulfillment of this universal longing for justice and access to a fair judicial system does not occur without an investment of time, energy, commitment and courage.”

Indeed, Justice Utter invested a lifetime of energy, commitment and courage in the furtherance of justice.  We honor this remarkable jurist.

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