Former Oregon Chief Justice Edwin J. Peterson, BA ’51, LLB ’57 died earlier this month in Salem, leaving behind a legacy of modernizing the courts system and shedding light on racial and ethnic bias issues in the judicial system in need of reform. He was 93. Appointed by Governor Vic Atiyeh in 1979, Peterson was elected to the Oregon Supreme Court three times, before retiring in 1993. He served as Chief Justice from 1983 – 1991.
A proud University of Oregon Double Duck, Peterson was recognized by his alma mater with the UO Distinguished Alumni Award (1989), the Oregon Law Meritorious Service Award (1996), and the Frohnmayer Award for Public Service (2017).
Oregon Law Professor Roy Catalani recalls Peterson’s lasting impact on Oregon Law and the profession. “He made us better students of law, better lawyers, and better equipped to respect and understand the importance of our institutions,” said Catalani. “More than that, he set examples of both professionalism and kindness that gave (and gives) us opportunities to be better people. He leaves us lessons that are more important today than ever. Like so many others, I am blessed by and deeply grateful for his mentorship and friendship.”
Peterson’s legacy is seen today in Oregon’s court system. He presided over the implementation of large-scale reforms in the Oregon judiciary, serving as the first chief justice with central administrative authority over the system. These reforms resulted in a more consistent and fair system of justice throughout Oregon, as well as ending county-by-county differences for employees in the judiciary system.
In 1992, he convened a task force on racial and ethnic issues in the judicial system. He continued this work after leaving the court, chairing an Oregon task force on race and equality before the law. The group’s 1994 report found that African Americans and other minorities were much more likely to be charged with and convicted of felonies in Oregon.
Prior to joining the court, he spent a twenty-two-year career practicing law with the Portland firm of Tooze, Kerr, Peterson, Marshall & Shenker, specializing in civil tort, insurance and business litigation where he gained a reputation as a sharp trial lawyer.
Following his retirement from the court, Chief Justice Peterson continued to mentor law students, serve as a mock trial coach, and teach at Willamette University School of Law.
Peterson was born in 1930 in the small town of Gilmantown, Wisconsin. He graduated from Eugene High School in 1947 and from the University of Oregon in 1951 as a music performance major, playing the French horn. After serving in the military for two years, he attended Oregon Law, graduating in 1957.
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.