A High-Flying Legal Career
During his first two years as chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, Wallace P. Carson Jr. JD’62 visited every court in Oregon’s state court system — but did so at a slower pace than he was used to. In addition to his full-time legal career, Carson served for 34 years in the U.S. Air Force as a jet fighter pilot and a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corp. officer. When he was appointed chief justice of the Court, an increasingly tight budget meant he had limited travel funds for visiting courts in the outermost regions of the state. Carson was left to sluggishly journey by car, which substantially lengthened his travel time. It took two years, but Carson finally made a visit to all Oregon state courts. His determination to personally visit the courthouses, judges and staff in each region clearly demonstrates his devotion to serving the people of Oregon.
Carson is humble about his role on the Oregon Supreme Court, as he is about his years of public service in other government arenas. His lifetime of public service began in college; he enrolled in the ROTC at Stanford University. He received his commission at graduation and immediately enlisted for three years of active duty. His military service took him to both post-war Korea and Taiwan. Afterward, Carson enrolled in Willamette University’s College of Law. But his military service did not end when he started law school. Throughout his legal career and until his military retirement 15 years ago, Carson held a number of positions in the U.S. military. In addition to flying jets and serving as a ground control intercept officer during active duty, he also was a JAG officer of the U.S. Air Force Reserve and served in the Oregon Air National Guard, where he advanced to the rank of brigadier general.
Carson’s career in state government took shape while he was a student at the College of Law. He said of all his classes, Legislative Workshop aided his legal career the most. The course was taught by Sam R. Haley, who was an adjunct professor at the time. Haley, who also worked as counsel to the legislature, had been hired to revise the Oregon statutes. He helped categorize Oregon law into the current Oregon Revised Statute system. “In the days before electronic research, Professor Haley taught me how to break into the statutes,” Carson said, adding that the research skills learned from Haley have been useful throughout his career.
Following his graduation from Willamette in 1962, Carson began working full time in private practice in his family’s Salem, Ore., law firm, which was founded by his grandfather in 1889. “In the back of my mind,” said Carson, “I always thought that I might run for office. I was active in school politics, running for class office every year in grade school through college. And during my undergraduate years at Stanford, the university was a hotbed of political activity.”
Three years after earning his law degree, Carson was recruited to run for a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives by Bob Packwood, who was a state representative at the time. He won that election and served two terms in the House, including one as majority leader. He won elections for the Oregon Senate in 1970 and 1974, and participated in his last legislative session in 1977. “It was a kinder and gentler period of time, even with partisan flare-ups,” said Carson, of his 11-year legislative tenure. “We served as stewards of the environment and were reasonably successful at doing that, passing Oregon’s bottle bill, beach bill, greenway bill and significant land use planning legislation.”
By the end of his legislative years, Carson was devoted to serving in state government. In 1977, he moved to the Oregon judicial branch, accepting an appointment by Governor Robert Straub to the Marion County Circuit Court. Five years later, Carson was appointed by Governor Victor Atiyeh to the Oregon Supreme Court. He has had overwhelming public support in later judicial elections. After nine years on the Supreme Court, Carson also gained the support of his fellow justices, who elected him chief justice in 1991, 1997 and 2003. Carson has held the office of chief justice for 14 years — longer than any previous chief.
“Serving as chief justice is a three-hat job,” he explained, “consisting of administration, work with judges and staff, and legal research and writing.” But Carson has risen to the challenge. Under his leadership, approximately 94 percent of the cases decided by the court have been unanimous decisions. “I see the usefulness of dissents or concurrences from the Court of Appeals because they showcase a split or turn of events,” added Carson. “But unanimous decisions by the Supreme Court provide Oregon with consistent law and, therefore, the law becomes more stable.”
Carson delights in the collegial spirit found among the Court’s justices. “Some of my best memories are of the Court meeting to discuss a case and ending with the group crafting an opinion,” Carson remarked. Even in this high-tech age, the entire Court still meets in person to discuss pending opinions, rather than relying on e-mail.
With Carson’s help, the court has developed an analytical model for deciding new common law. “The court will only announce new common law if a principle of the law or some extraneous force has changed,” he said. “It will not change established law solely because the people on the Court have changed.”
As an administrator, Carson helped steer the Oregon Judicial Department through a staggering financial crisis by creating and serving on the department’s Budget Reduction Advisory Committee. This committee recommended significant cuts to stay within the ever-shrinking budget. The committee advised eliminating small claims cases, leaving court staff vacancies open and closing all Oregon courts on Fridays. Despite all his hard work, these cuts were disappointing to Carson in many respects. “When the judicial system shuts down, it is the shutting down of a crucial public service,” he explained.
“I believe adamantly in the strength of all three branches of government and the value of the judicial system,” said Carson, who not only talks about this value, but also proves it in his actions. With more than 40 years of government work in all three branches of government, Carson has lived a life of public service — and will leave a great legacy for Oregon’s citizens.