Former Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin Peterson dies at 93

Former Oregon Chief Justice Edwin J. Peterson died on Saturday in Salem, leaving behind a legacy of modernizing the courts system. He was 93.

Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Meagan A. Flynn announced his death on Thursday. Peterson served as chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court from 1983 to 1991. 

“Edwin Peterson was a remarkable justice and wonderful person and made a lasting impact on Oregon’s legal institutions and communities,” Flynn said in a news release. “He led the Judicial Department in its transition into a unified, statewide court system and brought early focus to issues around racial, ethnic, and gender bias in Oregon’s legal system.”

 Edwin J. Peterson died at 93. (Courtesy of Willamette University Law School)

State lawmakers approved a plan in 1981 during his tenure for a statewide administrative structure for state courts in each of Oregon’s 36 counties. As part of that work, Peterson spearheaded the development of uniform trial rules and other modernization work, such as developing an electronic case management system and statewide requirements that reduced the time it takes for a case to go to trial. 

Born in Wisconsin, Peterson moved with his family to Oregon while he was a teenager for a better climate to help his and his mother’s asthma, according to the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon Encyclopedia

He graduated from Eugene High School and the University of Oregon, where he first earned a degree in music and played the French horn. After two years in the U.S. Air Force, he attended the University of Oregon law school, graduating in 1957. 

That year, he started working for a Portland law firm that focused on defending insurance companies and gained a reputation as a sharp trial lawyer. 

In 1979, he was appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court by then-Gov. Vic Atiyeh. At the time, Atiyeh took the then-rare step of appointing a trial lawyer rather than a judge from a lower court because he wanted someone with that courtroom experience, according to the encyclopedia.

That background proved helpful in crafting the uniform trial rules. As a lawyer, he kept large files on each county’s court rules and the customs unique to each county. Despite pushback from the legal establishment, that work was finished within about two years – a quick pace for any substantial change in state government.

Peterson was elected to the court three times, before retiring in 1993.

He is survived by his wife, Anna M. Peterson, of Salem, and two grown children. A public service is planned for January 2024, and details are pending.

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Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report. Botkin has won multiple journalism awards for his investigative and enterprise reporting, including on education, state budgets and criminal justice.