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Walter McGovern, federal judge in Seattle for half a century, dies at 99

UPDATED: Wed., July 14, 2021

Justice Walter T. McGovern, bottom left, served on the Washington State Supreme Court before being appointed to the federal bench in 1971. He’s seated next to fellow state high court judges Chief Justice Robert C. Finley and Justice Marshall A. Neill. In back are, from left: Justice Orris L. Hamilton, Justice Hugh J. Rosellini, Justice Robert Hunter and Justice Frank Hale. Absent were Justice Frank P. Weaver and Justice Richard B. Ott.  (Cowles Publishing)
Justice Walter T. McGovern, bottom left, served on the Washington State Supreme Court before being appointed to the federal bench in 1971. He’s seated next to fellow state high court judges Chief Justice Robert C. Finley and Justice Marshall A. Neill. In back are, from left: Justice Orris L. Hamilton, Justice Hugh J. Rosellini, Justice Robert Hunter and Justice Frank Hale. Absent were Justice Frank P. Weaver and Justice Richard B. Ott. (Cowles Publishing)
By Mike Carter and Dnaiel Gilbert Seattle Times

Walter T. McGovern, a star prep athlete, World War II veteran and senior federal judge who played competitive tennis into his ninth decade, died on July 8. He was 99.

“My father was a Seattleite,” said his daughter, Trina McGovern. “He loved the people of Seattle, and he loved Seattle.”

“The Western District of Washington has lost a local treasure,” said Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez in a statement. “He handled so many important cases in his long career that it is not hyperbole to say his rulings shaped our community.”

Aside from his skills as an athlete and jurist, McGovern was the founder of the federal bar association in the district and during a 12-year stint as chief judge he implemented structural changes that U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik says “made us a national model of innovation and excellence.”

McGovern was born on May 24, 1922, and named after an uncle who was a distinguished trial lawyer in San Francisco. McGovern grew up on Seattle’s Capitol Hill and attended the University of Washington, both as an undergraduate and for law school. According to his family, he met his wife, Rita Marie, when they were in the fourth grade, and they were married in 1946 at St. Anne’s Catholic Church.

They would stay married for 71 years. She died in 2017.

McGovern first found acclaim as a star basketball player at Seattle Prep, where he became the team’s all-time leading scorer, according to a 1991 Seattle Times article. He played at the University of Santa Clara before enlisting in the Navy to fight in World War II.

As part of the Navy’s V-12 officer training program, McGovern was stationed at Gonzaga University, where he and 12 other enlistees became its first celebrated basketball squad.

“Gonzaga wasn’t much of a basketball school until the arrival of the Navy men,” according to a 2016 Spokesman-Review article. McGovern, described as a “smooth ballhandler,” was a starter on the team that went 21-2 – another account had it at 23-2 – beating the University of Washington in a championship series.

After the war, McGovern turned down an offer to play professionally with the Washington Capitols, according to the 1991 Times article. He finished his education and obtained a law degree, spending about a decade in private practice before becoming a Municipal Court judge in the city, according to the Federal Judicial Center.

McGovern rose quickly as a jurist, beating an incumbent judge to win a seat on the King County Superior Court. Gov. Dan Evans appointed McGovern to the state Supreme Court in 1968, according to the judicial center, although McGovern said he did not much enjoy appellate work.

In 1971, then-President Richard Nixon appointed McGovern to the U.S. District Court. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate later that year and began a 50-year career as a federal judge.

“When I was a young trial lawyer, I always heard that if you’re going to be a judge, the greatest position in the world is to be a federal trial judge,” McGovern told a friend, according to a statement issued by the district.

As a federal judge, McGovern presided over cases that garnered national attention, including the prosecution of members of a white-supremacist group called The Order in 1985. The members had been charged with assassinating a Jewish radio host, stealing millions in robberies to fund a civil war against the government, and were convicted of crimes ranging from murder to racketeering.

“He cared about the cases he presided over and, most important, the people who walked into the courtroom,” Martinez said.

“He controlled the courtroom not with an iron fist but through sheer force of his personality,” he added. “Away from the courtroom he was a gentle man with a sense of humor who never took himself too seriously.”

After taking senior status in 1987, a form of semiretirement, McGovern played competitive tennis. Michael Mullally, president of the Seattle Tennis Club, said McGovern was a member for more than 60 years.

“I learned to play tennis because that’s what my wife wanted me to do,” McGovern said in a video uploaded to YouTube by a fitness organization in 2015.

He had a knack for the sport, winning the United States Tennis Association national tournament for nonagenarians in doubles in 2014. The next year, he and his partner won the first set, 7-5, lost the second, 4-6 and ultimately lost the match in a 10-point tiebreaker, as the winner, Alan Woog, told the Times.

In the YouTube video, McGovern described an intense exercise routine on days when he didn’t play tennis, running at least a mile on the treadmill. The goal, he explained was to “keep myself fluid in all respects: arms, legs, and head.”

“Even at the age of 95, he was still better and funnier than any of us, both on the courts and in the courthouse,” Mullally said. “He will truly be missed.”

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