Former Washington Supreme Court Justice Rosselle Pekelis, whose ascent through the state’s courts in the 1980s and ’90s inspired countless other women in law, has died at the age of 81.
She died in her Seattle home surrounded by family on Dec. 9, according to her youngest son, Zach Pekelis Jones. She had been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain cancer, in September.
Justice Pekelis’ career on the bench began in 1981, when she was sworn in as a judge on the King County Superior Court. She spent nine years on the state’s Court of Appeals, Division One, before serving briefly as the fourth-ever woman justice on the state Supreme Court.
“She was a force of nature. She commanded the room, whether it was from the bench or a soiree she was hosting,” Jones said. “She had this incredible ability to connect people to one another and she gave them their due.”
The judge-turned-mediator is remembered for her sharp sense of humor and levelheadedness, as well as her commitment to the law over partisanship. In 1995, she told The Seattle Times, “There are many laws that I think are odd or dubious, but I will uphold all the laws.”
As a 1978 profile in the Mercer Island Reporter said, “The life story of Ms. Pekelis pretty well wraps up the mid-twentieth century. It’s got everything.”
Her father left Odessa, Ukraine, for Germany during the Russian Revolution and later moved to Italy, where she was born in 1938. The Italian-Jewish family moved to France and, when Paris fell to the Nazis in 1940, hid in the countryside until they could escape. They made their way to New York in 1941.
Forty years later, she was sworn in as a Superior Court judge. But it wasn’t an easy path.
Her father died in a plane crash when she was 8, and her mother decided to stay in the U.S. and raise the children on her own.
Justice Pekelis attended Vassar College, where she married her first husband. She left when she became pregnant. After having three children and moving around the country for her husband’s acting career, she decided to finish her degree and go to law school.
After graduating from law school at the University of Missouri, she moved to Seattle with her family, where she worked for the law firm MacDonald Hoague & Bayless. Later, after a divorce, she went to Helsell, Fetterman, Martin, Todd & Hokanson.
“We kind of didn’t know how to be in that world that was mostly male. It was all somewhat new, and you stood out if you were a woman,” said attorney Kristin Houser, a longtime friend of Justice Pekelis. “And she was having none of that. She really kind of showed the way.”
After four years as an attorney, she decided to run for King County Superior Court. While she ultimately lost, she was appointed to the court in 1981 to fill a new judgeship position on the court by then-Gov. Dixy Lee Ray.
She went on to serve on the Court of Appeals, appointed by Gov. Booth Gardner in 1986, where she would author the opinion that women could not be excused from juries because of their gender. It was one of the decisions she was most proud of, she later told The Times.
She also heard a case on the appellate court that captured national attention: an Orcas Island woman who gave her son up for adoption wanted him back after he was placed with a gay couple in Seattle. The appellate court ruled against the woman.
A future opponent would use the case to paint the judge as too liberal. But Jones said that while his mother supported same-sex couples, she saw the ruling as a simple application of the law.
“Her main goal was to apply the law in an even-handed fashion and come to a just outcome,” Jones said.
Gov. Mike Lowry appointed her to fill a vacated seat on the Supreme Court in spring 1995. Justice Pekelis became the fourth woman to serve on the court, following justices Carolyn Dimmick, Barbara Durham and Barbara Madsen.
She was voted out just six months later, despite her strong backing from the legal community, 12 of 13 newspapers in the state, and top Democrats as well as moderate Republicans.
Reporters at the time pondered whether the loss was because she was a woman or had a less common name than her opponent, or if it was her opponent’s aggressive tactics or the sexual-harassment allegations surrounding Lowry that brought her down.
Seattle Times columnist Terry Tang concluded, “There’s something wrong with the way we pick judges when an excellent judge like Rosselle Pekelis is knocked off the state Supreme Court for reasons unrelated to intelligence, fairness or experience, and probably for no reason at all.”
Justice Pekelis went on to found Judicial Dispute Resolution along with other former judges. She enjoyed the shift in her career and worked on mediation cases until her retirement.
“In mediation, for once, you really get the back story — not the sanitized version that you get in a courtroom,” she wrote in a 2010 speech for Washington Women Lawyers. “You learn that people often misunderstand each other — (they’re) not liars and truth tellers.”
Justice Pekelis is survived by her husband, Frank Retman, a retired partner at MacDonald Hoague & Bayless whom she married in 1989; six children: Melissa Standish, Alex Higgins, Jenny Zavatsky, Zach Pekelis Jones, Sonnet Retman and Mischa Retman; and 10 grandchildren.
A memorial will be held May 5 at the state Supreme Court in Olympia. Details will be posted at rossellepekelis.com.