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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Philip Thompson, former Spokane district, superior and court of appeals judge, dies at 87

UPDATED: Mon., June 14, 2021

From his birth at Sacred Heart Hospital in 1933 to his death earlier this month, Judge Philip J. Thompson served the people of Spokane not only as a district, superior and court of appeals judge, but as an educator and community leader.

“He was humble and compassionate and very funny,” said Laurie Powers, Thompson’s niece.

Thompson, 87, was the third of five children born to Frances and Paul Thompson, according to an obituary written by the Thompson family.

He attended St. Aloysius grade school and then Gonzaga Preparatory School, where he was a star football player.

As a senior in 1952, he led the team to win the Greater Spokane Championship before heading off to play football at Santa Clara University. After two years, Thompson decided it was time to return to Spokane. He graduated from Gonzaga University with a degree in English in 1956.

At one point, Thompson was on the path to becoming a priest, but then he met Colleen Powers and the two were married.

Thompson served in the U.S. Army from 1955 -58 before returning to Gonzaga to study law. He worked his way through school at a series of jobs including working on a county road crew, as a switchman for the railroad, as a clerk of the court and an insurance adjuster, according to the Spokane Daily Chronicle archives.

“A lot of that, it formed who he was as a judge,” Powers said, noting her uncle was always very down-to-earth.

In 1962, Thompson graduated from Gonzaga Law School and joined the firm of Hamblen, Gilbert and Brooke.

Just two years later, Thompson was ready to go out on his own, joining forces with former city prosecutor William Luscher to form their own law offices, according to a 1964 Spokesman -Review article. About the same time, Thompson began his teaching career as a adjunct faculty member at Spokane Community College.

Not long after, Thompson began teaching as an adjunct professor at Gonzaga Law School.

One day while teaching, Thompson’s wife, a usually demure Irish Catholic woman, came bursting into the class with a suitcase yelling at Thompson and basically throwing him out, Powers said, retelling the story.

The entire class was shocked at what had just happened, then Thompson told them to write down everything they had just seen. The class was baffled momentarily until Thompson launched into a lesson on eyewitness testimony.

The outburst became a repeated teaching tactic, Powers said, with a chuckle.

In 1972, Thompson ran against incumbent Judge Ralph E. Foley for a Superior Court judgeship. By this time he had been in private practice for 10 years and had years of teaching at Gonzaga under his belt.

Spokane voters returned Foley, father of U.S. Rep. Tom Foley, to office. However, the race still launched Thompson’s career as a judge. He was appointed to Spokane District Court later that same year when Judge James B. McInturff became a court of appeals judge.

At the time, Thompson expressed the hope he would “be as good a judge” as McInturff, according to a 1972 Spokesman -Review article.

Spokane thought Thompson was a good judge and elected him to the position two years later.

In 1977, Thompson filed to run for a new Superior Court judgeship that had recently been created by the Washington State Legislature, but there was controversy over whether the positions would initially be appointed by the governor or elected. A court ruled that filing would be open for the positions, and Thompson ran unopposed and was sworn in August 1977.

A state Supreme Court ruling in September said the new judges would be appointed, invalidating his swearing-in. It was upsetting for Thompson, according to Spokesman-Review articles at the time.

Just three months later, he was appointed to fill the position.

Thompson served as a Spokane County Superior Court Judge for six years.

During that time, Thompson served two rotations in juvenile justice and helped get the Juvenile Justice Act of 1977 passed.

“I think his work on the Juvenile Justice Act was tremendous and turned into kind of a national model,” Powers said.

In 1983 Thompson was elected to the Washington State Court of Appeals Division III.

Powers, who was in college at the time, remembers helping her uncle campaign.

“That’s so not something he would want to do,” Powers said, of Thompson asking his friends and colleagues to go out of their way to get him elected.

However dozens of attorneys were more than willing to emphatically support Thompson, as seen in a nearly full-page campaign advertisement in The Spokesman Review at the time that featured column after column of local attorneys endorsing Thompson.

He served as presiding chief judge for the Washington State Court of Appeals in 1990 and from 1993-1994.

Throughout the majority of his career, Thompson taught at Gonzaga Law, and in 1993 he was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Merit Award. After he retired from his judgeship in 1997, Thompson became the corporate council for Gonzaga University.

Gonzaga was a central part of Thompson’s life. He lived within blocks of his childhood home in the Gonzaga University neighborhood for his entire life. The family loved the Logan neighborhood so much that as Thompson’s six children had careers and families of their own they moved back too.

By the late 1990s, the Thompsons owned five houses on one block in the shadow of the St. Aloysius Church spires.

As chronicled in a 1997 Spokesman -Review article, a typical Sunday night family dinner included 18 family members and maybe a neighbor or two.

“It just sort of spontaneously happened, it was very comfortable,” said Matthew Thompson, then 25. “Where better to live than here?”

The Thompsons later bought a smaller house to retire in across the street from the home where they raised their children.

Even with his illustrious career, Thompson found time to not only be a present father to his children and later 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, but also in the community.

He was often asked to share some of his “sage advice” or speak at community events, Powers said.

“He played, he coached, he counseled, he comforted, he bolstered, he admired and most importantly, he was a constant presence in the lives of the many he loved,” Thompson’s family wrote.

Powers, now an assistant dean at Gonzaga Law School, was inspired to become a lawyer by her uncle, she said.

“He was the one that said I should think about law school,” Powers said.

He didn’t just stop at the suggestion. Powers moved in with her aunt and uncle while she studied for the bar.

Years later, when Powers married, now Spokane City Council President, Breean Beggs and the couple was debating whether to move back to Spokane, they called “Uncle Phil” for advice.

“Uncle Phil was who we called,” Powers said. “He was like, ‘Please come. Our community needs you, please come.’ ”

Powers notes that offering advice or support wasn’t just reserved for family. Thompson served on numerous boards, mentored other attorneys and was who everyone in the Logan neighborhood stopped to chat with.

“That sense of service and being there for others, having a heart and passion for people, kind of guided who he was,” Powers said.

Thompson’s life was celebrated Thursday at St. Aloysius Church, under the spires that were always visible from his home and by the people ever present in his heart.

Editor’s Note: This story has been update to correct the spelling of Breean Beggs’ name and Philip Thompson’s first name. 

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