The judge who barred federal timber sales in spotted owl habitat and presided over the first homicide trial under federal drug-tampering laws has Parkinson’s disease and will retire next year.
U.S. District Judge William L. Dwyer, one of the state’s best-known litigators before being appointed to the bench in 1987, wrote President Clinton on Tuesday that, health permitting, he would carry a full caseload until his successor takes office.
Dwyer, 68, said he announced the move months earlier than planned because he recently learned he has Parkinson’s disease, an incurable ailment that slowly weakens muscle control and is characterized by involuntary tremors, slower movement, stiff muscles and - in the later stages - difficulty maintaining balance.
Others with Parkinson’s disease, which rarely affects mental capacity, include Attorney General Janet Reno, evangelist Billy Graham and former boxer Muhammad Ali.
After he retires on Dec. 1, 1998, Dwyer wrote, he plans to continue working part time as a senior federal judge with more control of his caseload.
“I trust that the 14-month lead time provided by this letter will help the administration and the Senate to act timely in appointing a new judge,” his letter said.
The announcement dismayed many in Seattle’s legal community.
“It’s a devastating loss to the court here,” said University of Washington law professor Stewart Jay.
“Everything I’ve heard from lawyers of all stripes, whether on one side of cases or the other, he is the very model of the just judge,” Jay said. “He’s a scholar and a gentleman in the best of senses. He’s compassionate, he’s fair, he works hard and tries to do the right thing.”
Born to a stenographer and a truck driver who were divorced when he was young, Dwyer grew up in Seattle and earned a law degree at New York University.
In his mid-30s, he won a landmark libel suit for former state Sen. John Goldmark, who lost a re-election bid after being falsely branded a communist sympathizer by the Tonasket Tribune in 1963.
The $40,000 award eventually was overturned by the Supreme Court, but Dwyer’s book, “The Goldmark Case: An American Libel Trial,” solidified his reputation as a lawyer willing to go all out even for unpopular causes.
Later clients ranged from a Black Panthers leader accused of receiving stolen property to Egil “Bud” Krogh in his bid to resume practicing law after serving time for a felony conviction as head of the White House “plumbers” under President Richard Nixon. Krogh later became a partner in Dwyer’s law firm.
In one of his most popular victories, Dwyer was hired by the state to handle a lawsuit against Major League Baseball over the departure of the Seattle Pilots for Milwaukee after one season. The case was settled with the award of an expansion franchise that became the Seattle Mariners.
When Republican Sens. Slade Gorton and Dan Evans asked President Ronald Reagan to appoint him to the bench in 1986, many conservatives balked, citing Dwyer’s Democratic and civil liberties activism.
Only after Gorton reluctantly provided the deciding vote to confirm Daniel Manion, a conservative Indiana jurist, as a federal appeals judge in Chicago did Reagan go ahead with the nomination.
By the time Dwyer was sworn in on Dec. 1, 1987, Gorton had been voted out of office - partly because of his vote for Manion (Gorton won election to the Senate again in 1988).
In his first year on the bench, Dwyer presided over the trial of Stella Nickell who was convicted and sentenced to 90 years in prison for poisoning her husband and a woman with cyanide-laced Excedrin capsules.
Three years later, in 1991, he issued two of his best-known rulings, a ban on federal timber sales in areas that could serve as habitat for the threatened northern spotted owl and a reversal of the death sentence of Kwan Fai “Willie” Mak in the case of 13 people who were killed in a robbery at a Chinatown gambling den.
In 1994, Dwyer ordered that offenders sentenced to indefinite civil commitment under the state’s Sexual Predator Law be provided adequate mental health treatment.
The next year he helped unsnarl a long legal tangle over property rights to the musical legacy of the 1960s acid rock and blues icon Jimi Hendrix.
Dwyer said he had enjoyed a “remarkably good run … in every way - work, family and friends.”
He said his ailment was in the early stages and anticipated “only to be able to continue working, but also to have the quality of the work remain the same as ever.”
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