He was a thrill-seeker in cowboy boots who piloted planes, scuba-dived in exotic seas and sought to appease a lifelong obsession with speed through vintage sports cars and high-revving motorbikes.
But within the courtroom, Tom Chambers exuded an almost ministerial humility as a champion for the underdog — a personal quality borne from his humble upbringing in small-town Eastern Washington.
The trait resonated with jurors and the public at large, helping him build a successful law practice, rise to lead the state bar association, and later, to define his philosophy as a twice-elected jurist on Washington’s highest court.
The 12-year state Supreme Court justice, who retired last year while battling throat and mouth cancer, died at his home on Lake Sammamish late Wednesday (Dec. 11). He was 70.
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Some of his most significant legal writings heralded equal access to justice for the poor and constitutional liberties for same-sex couples. His opinions also advocated for reforms in Washington’s foster-care system and chastised race-tinged legal arguments as prosecutorial misconduct.
“He always wanted to level the playing field so the average citizen had the same rights as the most powerful,” said longtime friend and University of Washington Law School professor William Bailey. “That came from his roots. He never lost touch with where he came from.”
The eldest of three children born to a gas-station proprietor in Wapato, Yakima County, he lived the first decade of his life with his parents in a 12-foot by 18-foot cabin, initially with no indoor toilet.
He graduated Wapato High School in 1962, winning a football scholarship to Yakima Valley College, before enrolling at Washington State University.
All the while, he nurtured an affinity for speed. He raced old jalopies, eventually selling one race car for $800 to pay for books, tuition and rent at WSU.
In 1966, he enrolled at the UW Law School, and married Judy Cable, his longtime girlfriend from Wapato, the following year. The couple raised three children while he built a successful Seattle practice, mostly handling small personal-injury cases. At one point, he tried more personal-injury cases for the plaintiff over a 10-year period than any other lawyer in Washington, according to his website.
He served as president of the Washington Trial Lawyers Association in 1985, won numerous professional awards, served as president of the Washington State Bar Association in 1995, and authored more than 100 legal articles and the “Tom Chambers Trial Notebook,” a 1,000-page tome on trial preparation.
“He was a phenomenal lawyer and a phenomenal teacher,” said Lori Haskell, a longtime friend whom he hired into his practice in 1992. “He was at the forefront in believing our profession needed more women and that we needed to make it more accepting and providing of women attorneys.”
He won a seat on the state Supreme Court in 2000, garnering 57 percent of the vote against Jim Foley. He won re-election in 2006.
While on the court, Justice Chambers’ significant writings included the unanimous opinion in Braam v. Washington, a class action in which foster children sued Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services to force improvements in foster care.
“The state as custodians and caretakers of foster children, must provide conditions free of unreasonable risk of danger, harm or pain, and must include adequate services to meet the basic needs of the child,” Justice Chambers later wrote of the ruling.
Former Chief Justice Gerry Alexander said Thursday that Justice Chambers “was always very conscious about the underdog in our society.”
“I don’t mean to say he slanted his jurisprudence in any way,” Alexander added. “Some of the cases we took were very close, but he always kept in mind those people who didn’t have power. I suppose a lot of that went back to his humble circumstances.”
Justice Chambers often broke from the panel’s majority opinion, at times joining with former libertarian Justice Richard Sanders and conservative Justice Jim Johnson in minority perspectives.
Justice “Chambers was pretty independent in his approach in thinking,” said UW law professor Hugh Spitzer, an expert in Washington constitutional law. “Probably the one unifying theme is that he cared about the little guy.”
In 2006, he dissented to the court’s controversial 5 to 4 vote upholding the state’s ban on gay marriage, contending that the ruling relied too heavily on federal law and rulings.
Away from the court, Justice Chambers relished his family and hobbies. He took up scuba diving and trained for a motocross race in his 50s. More recently, he had his Dodge Viper painted in a Captain America theme to replicate a grandson’s toy car.
Friends said Justice Chambers, a nonsmoker, first developed cancer in the late 1990s and fought the disease on and off for years. After losing a part of his tongue during his second term, he wrote out questions from the bench, having colleagues ask them.
“He was determined to continue working,” Haskell said.
In recent months, Justice Chambers took to openly blogging about his health on his website, tomchambers.com. The site also provided a detailed timeline of his life. Its last entry for 2013 read: “I am advised life is short. My cancer cannot be cured and am told I have 3 to 6 months to live.”
Justice Chambers is survived by his wife, Judy; three children, Jolie Lofink, Jana Jiwani and Tom Chambers Jr.; and six grandchildren. In homage of his love of flying, a public memorial is planned Jan. 9 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
Lewis Kamb: firstname.lastname@example.org or (206) 464-2932. Twitter: @lewiskamb