Willamette Lawyer | Fall 2007 • Vol. VII, No. 2
The Honorable Otto R. Skopil Jr.: Senior 9th Circuit Judge Otto R. Skopil Jr. has been an exemplar of outstanding judicial service throughout his long career. In addition to helping create the federal magistrate system, he was an architect for the future of federal court administration.
alumni profiles 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. 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. “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. 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 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. 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 allconference. Skopil lived at home, worked part time at a local service station and majored in economics. He also served as freshman class president. 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. 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 Fall 2007 | 23