Otto R. Skopil Jr. BA’41, LLB’46, H’83, dies at 93

Otto R. Skopil Jr., a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge who made the District of Oregon a model for expanding the use of magistrate judges, died last month in Portland. A member of Willamette’s Board of Trustees, Skopil was on senior status until just before he died.

“He was a great legal mind and a great lawyer, but beyond that, he was a great human being,” said Michael Bennett, the law school’s director of development and alumni relations.

Skopil, the son of German immigrant parents, attended Willamette University on a full basketball scholarship and was named all-conference. He worked part time at a local gas station while in school and also served as freshman class president.

Skopil was in law school when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He dropped out to enlist in the U.S. Navy and served as a supply corps officer. After the war, he returned to Salem and finished law school in 1946.

Skopil played a critical role in the release of law school classmate Taul Watanabe from an internment camp for Japanese Americans in Idaho. The two had grown up together and “it bothered Otto no end that his good friend was being taken away from his educational pursuits,” Bennett said. Skopil traveled to Washington, D.C. to argue for Watanabe’s release.

 After graduation, Skopil became a criminal defense lawyer. He and a friend became partners in a law firm that included insurance defense and plaintiff’s civil work. Skopil argued a case for State Farm that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court – and he won. He was nominated to the federal district court bench by then-U.S. Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, and after he was appointed he helped usher in a system that allows parties to content to a trial before a U.S. magistrate judge and ensuring that only the most qualified lawyers are appointed to magistrate positions. That was a national expansion of the system that existed in Oregon.

Skopil was nominated to the U.S. District Court bench in 1972 by then-President Richard M. Nixon and to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals bench in 1979 by then-President Jimmy Carter, one of few judges to be appointed by two different presidents of different parties.

Willamette University College of Law Professor Valerie Vollmar, who clerked for Skopil, said he was wise, fair and had “great common sense. You could never find someone who was more like a judge should be.”

Phil Parks, BA’66 JD’70, who worked for Skopil before he became a federal judge, described him as “just a fabulous mentor. He treated everybody with respect; he never abused the power of his position. There was just no pretense about him.”