An Exemplar of Outstanding Judicial Service
In the second floor courtroom of Pioneer Courthouse, where the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals meets in Portland, hangs a portrait of a judge who helped create the federal magistrate system and who was an architect for the future of federal court administration. He is a man endowed with both grace and humor, whose legacy to the District of Oregon is not of flash and drama, but rather of someone who has worked quietly and diligently to make the federal court a friendlier place.
At age 88, Senior 9th Circuit Judge Otto R. Skopil Jr. BA’41, LLB’46, H’83 remains an active and contributing member of the court, taking cases on the court’s non-oral argument calendar and continuing to draft dispositions.
Skopil came from a working-class background that offered him few material advantages but gave him role models for his life and career. He was born in Portland to German immigrant parents: Freda Martha Boetticher, who arrived here from Leipzig when she was 5 years old, and Otto Richard Skopil, who came to Oregon with his family at age 8 and grew up on a dairy farm in the Salem area. The couple eloped to Portland when his mother was 18. After their first son was born, they returned to Salem.
Skopil credits his parents’ influence with his thorough nature, sensitivity to others and strong work ethic. Otto Sr. drove a laundry truck in Salem and eventually expanded his business into Eugene. Skopil described his father as “the most patient and sensitive man I’ve ever known,” and said that both parents were extremely kind to others. Both also were perfectionists.
Bruce Williams BA’40, LLB’48, a close friend of Skopil’s since second grade who later became his law partner, said of the Skopil home, “In all the years I spent over there, I never heard a harsh word spoken.
The Skopils never spoke badly of anyone else or each other, even through the Depression.”
Otto Sr. generally worked 12-hour days, but he still came home for lunch every day and made time to play ball with Otto and his younger brother, Robert. Although his parents worked hard, Skopil’s family did not have the financial means to send him to college.
Fortunately, Skopil began playing basketball in junior high school and became an accomplished player. After high school, he was recruited by Willamette University and given a full scholarship. He played on the varsity basketball team his freshman year and was named all conference. Skopil lived at home, worked part time at a local service station and majored in economics. He also served as freshman class president.
Most of Skopil’s relatives were farmers or laborers. But he credits his Uncle Ralph with inspiring him to attend law school. After Ralph Skopil L’35 lost an eye in an industrial accident, a representative of his employer asked him what the employer could do to help. Ralph, who had up to that point achieved only a fifth grade education, asked the company to send him to law school. He practiced law in Salem until his retirement.
Otto Skopil was enrolled in law school at Willamette University when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He dropped out to enlist in the U.S. Navy; he served as a supply corps officer in Guadalcanal and in Washington, D.C., until 1945. After the war, he returned to Salem and completed his law degree in 1946.
Following graduation, Skopil set up practice and took up public criminal defense. He later joined forces with his childhood friend Bruce Williams, and the two expanded their trial practice to include insurance defense and plaintiff’s civil work. As a practicing lawyer, Skopil had a case for State Farm that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. He also tried a number of well-publicized criminal cases and was active in the bar and local community groups.
Skopil and Williams ran a thriving law practice in Salem for many years. Skopil said he had no judicial aspirations until he was approached one day by then-Sen. Mark O. Hatfield. There were two openings on the federal district court bench in Oregon at the time. The names of Skopil and James M. Burns were put forward by Hatfield and then-Sen. Bob Packwood, respectively. Skopil remembers the nomination and review process that he went through as short and pleasant — and in sharp contrast to the confirmation process today. He and Burns were confirmed on the same day.
When he attended the new judges school in Washington, D.C., Skopil found that he was one of the few among the 50 new federal district court judges not already a state court judge. When Skopil and Burns took the bench, they joined Judge Robert Belloni, who was the only active federal judge in the district. Judge Gus J. Solomon was on senior status, so the only other help Belloni had was Judge George E. Juba BA’52, JD’56, a federal magistrate. Thus, by necessity, Juba had been trying civil cases and engaging in far more expansive activities than other federal magistrates around the nation.
Belloni and Skopil were some of the first federal judges to realize the benefits of such an expansive approach in the use of magistrate judges. Both men set about making the District of Oregon a model for the nation in this regard. Skopil also had other innovative aspirations for the court.
“Jim Burns and I went on the bench with the feeling that we wanted to change the attitude of the bar toward the federal bench,” Skopil recalled. “We felt that we were members of the same profession, whether a judge or an attorney. My constant motivating factor was to be sure that everybody was treated fairly and equally.”
Skopil’s son, Otto “Rik” Skopil III JD’72, a Portland attorney, said his father’s strongly held philosophy about the legal system was that how a person was treated was just as important as the judge’s decision.
He described his father as a role model for judicial demeanor and said that Skopil “treated janitors the same way he treated senators — with respect and a sense of humor.”
Skopil proposed an alternative system that is still used today: a case-by-case status conference that takes place after both parties have made their initial appearances. The court decided that these conferences would be conducted by a magistrate.
U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Edward Leavy, who at the time was a magistrate judge picked by Skopil, began the process of meeting with the parties and discussing the issues and, through that process, working toward a resolution short of trial or litigation. Leavy now is recognized as a national leader in court-assisted mediation. He credits Skopil with setting a chain of events into action that changed the course of Leavy’s career. He said Skopil made federal court a “friendlier place to practice.”
To ensure that the magistrate system in Oregon would be successful, Skopil went door to door to meet with Portland law firms to sell practitioners on the magistrate judge system, Leavy recalled. Recognizing that the system could not be forced, Skopil approached the lawyers with assurances that their cases and motions would be heard by highly qualified magistrate judges and that the system would promote efficiency to the benefit of the entire bar. Skopil’s efforts paid off, and federal practitioners routinely consented to have their cases heard by Juba and Leavy.
Skopil’s impact on the profession took the national stage when he was appointed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger to the National Magistrates Committee in 1979. As chairman, Skopil testified before Congress and helped draft what would become the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. 636.
“The magistrate system as it now stands is probably one of the most progressive things that has happened in the judiciary since its origin,” Skopil explained. “It has given the courts an entirely different ability to handle the tremendous volume we have.”
By drafting legislation that allows parties to consent to a trial before a U.S. magistrate judge and ensuring that only the most qualified lawyers were appointed to the magistrate positions, Skopil made his vision of expanding the Oregon system to the entire nation a reality.
Skopil worked on the National Magistrates Committee with then-U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell, and it was this connection that eventually led to his nomination to the Court of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter. Skopil was among the 5 percent of judicial nominees that year to receive an “exceptionally well-qualified” rating from the American Bar Association; he also was the only Republican nominee. Skopil is convinced that he has Bell to thank for getting his name before the president.
Thus, Skopil holds the distinction of being appointed a federal judge by two different presidents and of different parties: Richard M. Nixon (U.S. District Court, District of Oregon, 1972) and Carter (9th Circuit
Court of Appeals, 1979).
In 1990, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist appointed Skopil chair of the federal judiciary’s Long Range Planning Committee. The committee spent five years gathering data, surveying judges and lawyers, and examining judicial vacancies, caseloads, work-force changes, the role of senior judges and a number of other issues facing federal courts throughout the country. The result of this work was the publication of the “Final Long-Range Plan for the Federal Courts,” which was approved by the Judicial Conference in 1995.
Colleagues have said Skopil is an individual who transcends politics, partisanship and rancor of any kind. As Senior District Judge Owen M. Panner observed, “For 40 years, I have watched Otto Skopil as a lawyer, as a district judge and as a 9th Circuit judge. In all that time, I don’t believe I’ve ever had anyone say anything bad about Judge Skopil. He has no enemies.”
“He loves his profession,” said Skopil’s daughter, Shannon I. (Skopil) Bronson JD’85, a Portland attorney. “He loves being able to use his common sense, intelligence and pure heart to help others. He always said that he felt that the pay cut he took to become a federal judge was offset by the honor of serving and benefiting the public.”
U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones called Skopil “an exceptional jurist with a broad smile” and said he is “a rare bird — beloved, admired, honored and respected by lawyers, colleagues and friends. He is truly a person for all seasons.” Jones said Skopil serves as a model example “to those who seek the balance between family, career, love, laughter and the law.”
Written by Kelly A. Zusman; originally published under the title “Otto Skopil Jr. Helps Shape a Friendlier, More Efficient Judiciary” in the April 2007 issue of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin. Reprinted with permission.
Unbreakable Bond: A Lifelong Connection to Willamette
“I’ve always had strong feelings about Willamette,” said Otto R. Skopil Jr. BA’41, LLB’46, H’83. A senior 9th Circuit Court judge, Skopil has maintained a lifelong connection to the University.
Skopil earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and was two years into law school at Willamette when he and two classmates left the program to enlist in World War II. Skopil served in the U.S. Navy for four years before returning to the law school in October 1945. Because he and his classmates returned from military service in the middle of the term, Willamette created a mid-year graduating class for the three returning soldiers. “Willamette commenced a special law class just for us,” Skopil explained. “It really saved us a year out of our lives.”
Skopil believes the special consideration given to the three law students perfectly illustrates Willamette’s concern for its students. “Willamette was interested in more than just educating us,” he said. “The administrators and professors were interested in us personally, in the quality of our lives.”
Skopil graduated from Willamette’s law school more than 60 years ago, but he has maintained a close bond to the University throughout the years. He served on the Board of Trustees from 1968–74 and still visits the law school regularly. “I try to get to the law school at least once a year,” he said. “I want to repay
the debt I owe the school for the special accommodation they made for me.”
During these visits, Skopil often takes the time to meet with students and encourage them to apply for judicial clerkships. “It is the only way to really learn about the decision-making process and court procedures,” said Skopil, who had the opportunity to try cases at every level of the court system, including federal court. He served on the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon from 1972–79 and has sat on the 9th Circuit Court since 1979.
Looking back on his distinguished judicial career, Skopil said he is most proud of being of service to others. “We all need help from time to time, so it is satisfying that I have been able to help so many people,” said Skopil, who received an honorary doctor of laws from Willamette in 1983. “I’ve really been blessed.”
Otto R. Skopil Jr. BA’41, LLB’46, H’83
“The magistrate system as it now stands is probably one of the most progressive things that has happened in the judiciary since its origin.”