Former chief justice: End to racial bias 'not there yet'
Twenty-five years after he led Oregon's first efforts against racial and ethnic disparities in the judicial system, former Chief Justice Edwin Peterson says progress has been made "but we are not there yet."
Peterson, a lawyer in Portland before he became a justice, made the observations after his official portrait was unveiled last week (April 5) during a ceremony at the Supreme Court Building in Salem.
Peterson's successor as chief justice, Wallace Carson, named him to lead a task force in February 1992 while he was still on the court. After it presented 72 recommendations in May 1994 — a few months after Peterson left the court — a second group led by future Chief Justice Paul De Muniz helped implement the report.
Peterson carried out several personal efforts to reduce racial bias.
In his remarks, he mused about how future generations will consider his public and private efforts.
"Will they see the racial inequities that existed for people of color in our society and learn about our efforts to correct these inequities?" he asked rhetorically. "Will they see the increasing number of minority lawyers in Oregon?
"As a result of these efforts, Oregon residents of color receive better treatment from law enforcement officers, prosecuting attorneys, judges, and corrections and probation officers. More minorities now serve on Oregon juries. Justice for Oregonians of color today is more welcome.
"But we are not yet there," he concluded.
Peterson reflected that frustration in the recent series "Unequal Justice," a joint project of InvestigateWest and Pamplin Media Group. Based on an analysis of court records between January 2005 and June 2016, the series concluded that equal justice remains elusive for 650,000 black and Latino residents.
After Peterson left the high court at the start of 1994, he created the Understanding Racism Foundation, which stemmed from his efforts to educate lawyers and others about racial and ethnic bias.
Edwin Harnden, now co-managing partner of the Portland firm of Barran Liebman, took part in one of the initial six-week educational efforts 20 years ago.
Harnden was skeptical at first, "but it has truly changed my life."
"I suggest (he is) someone who has generated a sense of urgency about bias, who speaks now for the rights of the unprotected, and for harnessing the passion, enthusiasm and energy of those he works with to make a difference," he said of Peterson.
Five years ago, Peterson and De Muniz — in the final year De Muniz was on the high court — created a mock court competition for Latino high school students. All of the participants are in college or bound for it.
"He was one of the best coaches I have had the privilege to learn from," said Moises Mendoza, then at North Salem High School and now a third-year student in political science at Western Oregon University.
"To speak to an actual judge and have Supreme Court justices and practicing attorneys all around me made me nervous. But I realized they were there to help me, and I learned everything I could from them."
Peterson also led a state panel that sought to encourage police agencies to report traffic stops involving minorities — a practice incorporated in a pending bill (HB 2355) in the Oregon Legislature.
Peterson, now 87, earned a bachelor's degree in music in 1951 and a law degree in 1957, both from the University of Oregon. He spent two years in the Air Force between degrees.
He had been with the Portland firm of Tooze, Kerr, Peterson, Marshall and Shenker for more than two decades when Gov. Vic Atiyeh tapped him in 1979 as the first of Atiyeh's eventual seven appointees to the Supreme Court.
Just after the state took over operation of trial courts in Oregon's 36 counties in 1983, Peterson as the new chief justice had the task of integrating them into a unified system he would lead.
"We all know he was up to the task," said De Muniz, who himself was chief justice from 2006 to 2012. "Ed Peterson established the position of chief justice as the true leader of the judicial branch. That is the legacy he left."
Peterson moved to Salem after he was appointed to the court. His wife, Anna, was elected Salem mayor in 2010 and recently completed six years in office.
Carson said he marveled at Peterson's "extraordinary energy" in retirement.
Peterson had an active mediation practice, and for more than two decades, was distinguished jurist in residence at Willamette University's law school, where he taught civil procedure.
"He did not retire," said De Muniz, who also teaches at Willamette law school. "He simply repurposed himself."
The portrait by Portland artist Paul Missal has a "wry touch," as Peterson described it. Instead of holding a lawbook or other legal document, Peterson is clutching a copy of the complete lyrics of Cole Porter, 20th century American composer and songwriter.