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Tuesday, December 31, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ex-chief justice blazed trail for women in law

Seattle Times staff reporters

Former Washington State Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Durham, widely viewed as a pioneer for her gender in the legal profession, lived just long enough to see women elected to a majority on the court.

She died yesterday of kidney failure, a complication from an illness that forced her into an early retirement. She was 60.

Justice Durham spent nearly 26 years on the bench and was the only judge to serve at every level of court in the state. She was the first woman on the Court of Appeals and the first female chief justice of the state's high court. Today, five of the court's nine justices are women.

On the Supreme Court, she was a predictable vote for law enforcement and also a strong advocate for victims of domestic abuse.

Attorney General Christine Gregoire recalls that nearly 10 years ago, Justice Durham suggested the two work together on a unique domestic-violence-education effort that later was praised by the U.S. Department of Justice. "I have never seen a chief justice take up a substantive issue like that," Gregoire said yesterday.

"She was very generous in her time and efforts," recalled friend Carolyn Dimmick, a U.S. District Court judge. "She was gracious, witty, bright and a fun person to be around."

But she did not shrink from difficult subjects. Justice Durham appointed a panel that called for having judges appointed, not elected. She tried to eliminate two positions from the court to make it more manageable and pushed the power of the chief justice beyond its traditional ceremonial role.

Decisions that Justice Durham wrote established standards for using DNA in court and upheld the law that allowed sexual predators to be held in "civil commitment" indefinitely.

Justice Durham's judicial career ended in 1999 after she abruptly resigned from the court. Medical problems, including what was later described as early-onset Alzheimer's disease, led to long absences, and she applied for, and was granted, a medical-disability retirement.

At that time, Chief Justice Richard Guy said her illness had not affected her work on the court.

Former Justice Robert Utter remembers Justice Durham's tenacity in the face of early signs of her illness. "It was a terrible blow to her," he said. "I don't know how to put this delicately. ... Things were becoming more difficult for her than they once were. She had a special kind of courage."

Her rise began in 1973 with her appointment to the Mercer Island District Court. Next she stepped up to the King County Superior Court.

Gregoire recently leafed through old photos that showed Justice Durham, known on the high court for her prim and proper dress, wearing go-go boots and a short skirt.

"She wanted to make her point when she was elevated to the bench in King County that we come in all different stripes," Gregoire said. "She was a trailblazer."

Republican Gov. John Spellman appointed her to a vacant Supreme Court position in 1985. Her fellow justices voted her chief in 1995.

While trying to avoid political labels, Justice Durham was clearly a conservative when it came to law enforcement. A defense attorney once said of her: "She's expressed no reservation whatsoever about the death penalty."

She was a strong defender of abuse victims. She wrote the majority opinion that allowed a self-defense claim by an abused child who shot his stepfather.

In 1998, Justice Durham appeared on the verge of another major step in her career. Washington Sens. Slade Gorton, a Republican defeated in 2000, and Democrat Patty Murray nominated her for a seat on the federal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The presidential appointment never came. In May 1999, Justice Durham withdrew her name from consideration, saying she needed to spend more time with her ill husband.

"It was a real tragedy," Utter said. "Her ambition was to go on the federal court. She was almost certain to be cleared and was unable to follow through."

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