Retiring Justice Stevens: ‘Poulsbo is a Postcard on the Water’

It’s quite the rarity when a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States makes the trek to a town such as Poulsbo.

But in 1985 and for the benefit of, among other things, the small town lawyer, Justice John Paul Stevens and his wife, Maryan, came to Poulsbo.

Stevens, who last week announced his retirement from the high court after serving the fourth longest term in its history, was invited to come by a group of nine Poulsbo attorneys who comprised what they called the Poulsbo Bar Association.

It was a shot in the dark, recalls Jeff Tolman, of longtime Poulsbo firm Tolman and Kirk. But after some letters of correspondence, Stevens agreed to come, Tolman said.

The lawyers invited Stevens to receive their “Small Town Lawyer Made Good,” award. Though Stevens cut his teeth as an attorney in not-small Chicago, the cadre of Poulsbo lawyers gave the award to either:

* a small town lawyer, or

* Supreme Court justices

From the St. Petersburg Times

And so the bow-tied, horn rimmed justice flew to Seattle with his wife, and Tolman, his law partner Mike Kirk, and now-Kitsap County Superior Court Judge Jay Roof went to the airport to pick him up. There was no security — they drove a suburban and whisked him to Big Valley Road for a stay at Manor Farm.

Roof recalled Stevens as being a “very gracious man,” who was “willing to come out to the hinterlands.”

“He seemed to be the type of person that could understand justice could occur in rural areas,” Roof said.

They took Stevens for a sailboat ride on Puget Sound before Stevens received the award before a packed 300-room Sons of Norway hall.

Justice Stevens said he’d expected a town that was drying up and empty, Tolman recalled. Instead, he said that “Poulsbo is a postcard on the water.” It was a well received remark.

“If you wanna show small town lawyers in country you value them,” Tolman said of Stevens’ appearance, “What a wonderful way to do it.”

Tolman added that only about three years later, the same award was given to Justice Antonin Scalia, who also came to Poulsbo.

Stevens’ empathy for the rule of law in more rural areas has been mentioned in stories of his retirement. The New York Times asked some of Stevens’ former clerks to describe the 89-year-old justice. Eduardo M. Penalver, a professor at Cornell Law School who was Stevens’ clerk from 2000 to 2001, remembered the Poulsbo award. Here’s an excerpt from the Times’ article:

“During my clerkship interview with Justice Stevens, we talked about our hometowns. When I mentioned that I had grown up in a small town near Seattle, he leapt from his chair and pulled a plaque off the wall. It read: “Small Town Lawyer of the Year: Associate Justice John Paul Stevens.” It had been given to him a few years before by the bar association of Poulsbo, Wash.

At the time, I was puzzled that the award was so meaningful to him. I shouldn’t have been. Although Justice Stevens has always practiced law at the highest levels of the profession, his modesty would make him feel right at home in a place like Poulsbo. He may not have actually been a small town lawyer, but he was definitely a kindred spirit.”

2 thoughts on “Retiring Justice Stevens: ‘Poulsbo is a Postcard on the Water’

  1. Another good reason the State Legislature’s bill to have Municipal court Judges ‘elected’ rather than appointed was shot down, including the Assoc of Washington Cities lobbying against it – –

    Where else can you be sure to ‘find’ gem’s like our own Judge Tolman in Poulsbo, eh?! (okay, okay – – ‘Ja, sure, You Bet’cha!’)

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