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December 4, 2006

Kenneth J. O’Connell: Scholar of the Courtroom and the Classroom

Kenneth J. O’Connell
Scholar of the Classroom
and the Courtroom
Kenneth J. O’Connell served as an Oregon Supreme Court Justice for nineteen years, during a time of great energy and change in American jurisprudence.
He brought his strengths as a scholar and a teacher to Oregon’s high court in 1958 and was elected to three full six-year terms — the last as Chief Justice. He declined to run for reelection in 1977.

Most of his long life was devoted to the cause of legal reform and equal justice. And he had a clear understanding that it took the skills of a teacher — patience, lucidity and persuasion — to get there.

O’Connell was appointed by Dean Wayne O. Morse to the University of Oregon law school faculty in 1935. The young professor came equipped with two law degrees from Wisconsin. 
From the beginning, wrote his colleague Orlando J. Hollis, “Professor O’Connell wanted to examine the underpinnings of any rule discussed and then to inquire whether that rule was justified….Needless to say, it led to lively discussions.’

As one of just a few faculty members — particularly during WWII — he was called on to teach a wide variety of courses. Real property was his favorite.

During the 1940s, he took practicing lawyers and law professors to task for not accepting enough responsibility for law reform. Then he took on the job himself — traveling the state to persuade the bar to clean up and revise Oregon’s civil and criminal statutes and becoming the chair of an Oregon statute revision council in 1949.
Nine years after he began his campaign, Oregon got its first revised set of statutes in 1953.

O’Connell brought his strengths as a scholar and as a teacher to Oregon’s Supreme Court in 1958. “No matter whether or not his views prevailed, he always expressed them with urbane good humor, and with massive resort to authorities. No point was ever lost for want of research,” wrote Ninth Circuit Court Judge Ted Goodwin, one of his colleagues on the bench.

During the 1960s, the state Supreme Court was much affected by the decisions of the Warren Court and the new meaning given to the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments. In 1959, O’Connell helped bring about Oregon’s postconviction statute — called one of the finest in the country. 

During the next few years, O’Connell’s ability to convince his fellow justices smoothed the way in bringing to “indigent criminals the quality of procedural justice that had always been available to the affluent.”
“Time and again it was Justice O’Connell who assumed the role of catalyst in bringing seven good minds to bear upon a problem that needed to be reviewed afresh,” wrote Goodwin in a 1977 OregonLaw Review tribute.
O’Connell played all possible parts in his 65 years in Oregon’s legal community — law professor, practicing attorney, appellate court judge and law reformer. In an editorial, the Eugene Register-Guard
<> called him “one of the finest legal minds in the West.”
Kenneth J. O’Connell died on February 18, 2000, at the age of 90. In 1995, he had donated a generous gift to the UO School of Law to further his priority of education for the appellate bench and bar. 
The annual symposium named after him is just one of the ways the UO continues to use this gift and to remember “K.J.”, a great jurist and a beloved teacher at Oregon’s public law school.

– Eliza Schmidkunz

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