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Carolyn Dimmick: A judge for all seasons

Because I am a woman, I must make unusual efforts to succeed. If I fail, no one will say, 'She doesn't have what it takes.' They will say, 'Women don't have what it takes.'
- Clare Boothe Luce
Federal Judge Carolyn Dimmick
Federal Judge Carolyn Dimmick
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"Woman Wields the Gavel," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Society section declared in 1968. Reporter Kay Kelly noted that most people would expect a judge to be a solemn, white-haired, 60ish man. But Carolyn Dimmick – "blonde, attractive, young, pleasant, fun, fashion-conscious and the proud mother of two" – was "a surprise and a treat." According to colleagues, she was "also a very competent judge," one of only three women on the bench statewide. However, she was "reluctant to talk about herself, reluctant to consent to publicity. But why should Kirkland keep her to itself?"

Why indeed? Carolyn Dimmick graduated quickly from being a surprise, but 40 years later she’s still a treat, and still wielding a gavel now and then as a senior judge on the U.S. District Court bench in Seattle. She’s youthful and fun, yet dignified as befits the occasion. The proud grandmother of four, she’s reluctant to talk about herself, and not just "a very competent" judge but one of the most respected and influential judges in Northwest history.

A role model for her own generation and all since, Judge Dimmick had to run a gauntlet of those "she’s-a-woman-and-a-judge – imagine that!" – stereotypes before she became Washington’s first female Supreme Court justice in 1981. Even then, her old boss, former King County prosecutor Charles O. Carroll, introduced her after her swearing in as "the prettiest justice on the Supreme Court."

Justice Jim Dolliver, who received his law degree from the University of Washington a year before Dimmick, knew she was a lot more than just a pretty face. In a classically puckish Dolliver touch, he passed her a note on their first day together on the bench: "Which do you prefer: 1) Mrs. Justice. 2) Ms. Justice. 3) O! Most Worshipful One, or 4) El Maxima?"

"All of the above!" Dimmick wrote back, laconic as ever.

Nineteen-eighty-one was a landmark year for women and the judiciary. A few months after Dimmick donned the robe in Olympia, President Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’Connor of Arizona to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Dimmick’s office at the Federal Courthouse in Seattle, there’s a framed photo of her with Justice O’Connor. Born just a few months apart, they have a lot in common, notably nimble minds and a reluctance to be labeled. Judge Dimmick was gratified when O’Connor was named to the high court, but thinks the idea of appointing a woman simply because she is a woman is "demeaning."

Back row, from left: the Washington Supreme Court in 1982: Fred Dore, Floyd
Hicks, William Williams, Carolyn Dimmick. Front row, from left: Robert Utter, Hugh
Rosellini, Bob Brachtenbach, Charles Stafford, James Dolliver Back row, from left: the Washington Supreme Court in 1982: Fred Dore, Floyd Hicks, William Williams, Carolyn Dimmick. Front row, from left: Robert Utter, Hugh Rosellini, Bob Brachtenbach, Charles Stafford, James Dolliver

Dimmick’s 40-year tenure as a judge on county, state and federal courts "covers the span of time when women judges went from novelty to majority," says Robert S. Lasnik, her colleague on the U.S. District Court in Seattle. Lasnik, who succeeded Dimmick when she went on senior status in 1997, describes her as "a unique blend of wisdom, humility, humor and charm."

Dimmick’s coming-out party as a lawyer occurred on Sept. 21, 1953, when the Post-Intelligencer devoted a three-column photo and a breezy story to "Pretty Blonde Water Skier Qualifies as Attorney":

"Carolyn Joyce Reaber, 23, blonde and beautiful Seattle water skier, will be sworn in as an attorney-at-law this Monday. ... Last Friday, the day she waited for the bar examiners to announce whether she had passed or not, was the worst day in her life, Miss Reaber said, a lot worse than the day she went up Hell’s Canyon Rapids on water skiis with a movie camera trained on her." Besides being a semi-pro water skier with the Ski-Quatic Follies on Lake Washington, the story said she had been a part-time employee in the P-I’s Circulation Department from the time she was a sophomore at Lincoln High School until her senior year at the University of Washington. So the press took a shine to her as one of its own, but she was a bona fide trailblazer.

Fate, however, is a recurring theme in her life story. Seattle Times reporter Dick Clever once observed: "If the law curriculum at the University of Washington in the early 1950s had included a math prerequisite, the state still could be waiting for its first woman Supreme Court justice." In fact, Carolyn Reaber hadn’t even considered becoming an attorney when she enrolled at the university in the fall of 1947. She concentrated on business and sociology. However, after three years she had to declare a major to earn a degree. "I went through the catalogue and found that you didn’t need a math prerequisite for a law major," the judge recalls. Moreover, after three years of study, UW undergrads in that era could apply for admission to the Law School and receive a B.A. after completing their first year there. "Enthused by a business law class earlier in her studies, she thought a year in law school would be a less painful way to a college degree," Supreme Court historian Charles H. Sheldon notes. "She thrived on the law curriculum," and her classmates elected her to a prestigious spot on the Law Review. She had to forgo that opportunity because she was still working part-time at the Post-Intelligencer.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Sandra Day O’Connor, left, with
Carolyn Dimmick, center, Robert
Lasnik, right, and Chief Magistrate
Judge Karen Strombom in back U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, left, with Carolyn Dimmick, center, Robert Lasnik, right, and Chief Magistrate Judge Karen Strombom in back

Dimmick graduated in 1953, one of only three women in her Law School class. Four others had dropped out along the way. She immediately landed a job as an assistant attorney general in Olympia. "I never dreamed of applying at a (Seattle) law firm. Public service was the only show in town" for women attorneys at that time, Dimmick recalls.

In 1955, she joined the King County Prosecutor’s office, where she was detailed to woman’s work in the Domestic Relations Division. Her file of press clippings punctuated with incredulity grew bigger as the P-I duly noted, "Carolyn J. Reaber, a blonde young woman whose appearance hardly squares with the public conception of what women lawyers look like, became divorce proctor of King County Wednesday. ... Miss Reaber, five feet 2½ inches tall, is nevertheless armed with all the legal license necessary to tangle in the courtroom with any giant of the profession. ... Her duties as a divorce proctor will consist principally of protecting the interests of children and ascertaining that grounds for divorce exist."

By 1956, she was a young married woman and moving up to tangle with perverts and busybodies. "Blonde Barrister Assigned to Morals Detail" was the headline:

"Each Thursday is morals day in King County Justice Court," the P-I reported. "As a rule, the prosecution is represented by a petite blonde who, frankly, doesn’t look the part. ...Carolyn Reaber Dimmick is young, pretty and soft spoken. More like a ‘big sister’ with her blonde hair swept into a youthful pony tail, she is able to put her young plaintiffs at ease as they relate frequently sordid details to Judge J. William Hoar."

Dimmick shared the story of the "elderly spinsters who reported a neighbor for indecent exposure. Investigators reported the two homes were some distance apart. Quizzed on how they knew of the neighbor’s misconduct, they answered, ‘We used our field glasses!’ "

Carolyn met her future husband, Cyrus A. Dimmick, in 1953 when they both worked for the Attorney General’s Office. Cy was 11 years older, "a big, tall, good-looking guy," Carolyn recalls, and a decorated veteran of World War II who had graduated from the UW Law School in 1948. They were married in 1955. Cy established a private practice in Seattle. The couple had two young children by the early 1960s, and Carolyn took breaks from her county job, doing legal work from home or in Cy’s law office. "Without that opportunity," she recalls, "I would have just lost my profession for all those years. Instead, I was able to keep up."

Pretty Blonde Water Skier Qualifies as Attorney

It was at her husband’s urging that she applied for the Northlake Justice Court seat in 1965. The county commissioners were impressed by her demeanor and enthusiasm and she had Chuck Carroll’s endorsement. Carolyn told Cy, "You don’t have to call me ‘your honor.’ Just call me ‘judgie.’ That’ll be good enough."

Despite her pluck and intelligence, Dimmick "was terribly discouraged early on and felt like giving up" as she encountered the inertia of a male-dominated legal profession. Women were torn between motherhood and careers, especially when there were so many gender-based roadblocks in the workaday world. No bra-burner, Dimmick nevertheless celebrated the power of sisterhood in the Women’s Liberation era. "In the 1970s, Washington women lawyers were getting organized," she recalled 27 years later. "Grouping together gave us courage. And we overcame."

In 1976, Dimmick was appointed to the King County Superior Court bench by Gov. Dan Evans. Her friend and future Supreme Court justice Charles Z. Smith devoted his commentary on KOMO TV to the occasion, concluding that "The fact that she’s a woman is important ... but it really has nothing whatever to do with her competence as a judge. ... Ability and integrity in the law is measured by performance and not by whether one’s a man or a woman."

In the fall of 1978, Dimmick’s sense of integrity in the law had her on the hot seat after she ordered striking Seattle teachers back to work. Peeved, the King County Labor Council withdrew its endorsement of her even though her term as Superior Court judge didn’t expire for two more years. James Bender, the executive secretary of the Labor Council, said the unions were upset because Dimmick not only signed a preliminary injunction ordering the teachers back to work, she declared that all public-employee strikes were illegal. "That broad stroke was out of order," Bender asserted. "She was trying to legislate." Unfazed, Dimmick said she was doing no such thing. "If they are going to fault judges for upholding the law," the judge said, "that’s the way the ball bounces. It is common law that governmental employees cannot strike. Either the Supreme Court or the Legislature would have to change that."

Graduation from the University of
Washington School of Law in 1953 Graduation from the University of Washington School of Law in 1953

The president of the Seattle-King County Bar Association, William A. Helsell, chastised the Labor Council in his column in the Bar Bulletin, noting that attorneys who had appeared in Dimmick’s court all said she "calls them as she sees them." He added, "The King County Labor Council should be grateful that we have Superior Court judges of ability and integrity who will not be swayed by one pressure group or another, but who patiently and carefully decide cases on the basis of the law and the facts."

Ed Donohoe, legendary editor of the Washington Teamster newspaper – once described as "the Don Rickles of the typewriter" – wrote about the dust-up in his widely read "Tilting the Windmill" column: "In defense of Judge Dimmick, she was among a dozen King County jurists who refused to attend a convention at Ocean Shores because the resort was on the unfair list, and she is considered one of the most intelligent and fairest persons on the local bench – attributes that seen to be in short supply these days."

Labor came around, Dimmick was re-elected without opposition and 1980 found her poised to move up once again. In the last days of her administration, Gov. Dixy Lee Ray "was definitely looking to appoint a woman to the state’s highest court," Judge Dimmick says. "I was in the right place at the right time." In fact, she was more interested in another place at that time – the Court of Appeals. That’s the job she applied for when Fred Dore won election to the State Supreme Court and vacated his seat on Division One. When Dimmick met with Gov. Ray, she assumed she was being vetted for the Court of Appeals. Dixy had something else in mind. There was also a vacancy on the Supreme Court in the wake of the death of Justice Charles T. Wright, and the governor announced Dimmick’s appointment with "great pride."

Surprised to learn she was about to make history, Dimmick seized the opportunity, but "had the only vacancy been the Supreme Court, I would not have applied," she recalls. Mainly, she was less than enthused about moving to Olympia.

Carolyn and her husband Cyrus "Cy" Dimmick in the early 1960s Carolyn and her husband Cyrus "Cy" Dimmick in the early 1960s

On Jan. 2, 1981, Cy Dimmick helped his wife don her new robe. "I told him not to kiss me because no one is going to kiss the other justices," she quipped. She also told the crowd that her first job after law school was as a clerk in the Attorney General’s Office, then located in the Temple of Justice. "I never had the slightest dream I would be able to sit here myself," she said.

When Carolyn Dimmick broke into the old boys’ club at the Supreme Court, there was only one bathroom for the nine justices. Justice Floyd V. Hicks told her it would cost $50,000 to $60,000 to install a second bathroom to accommodate her. "Not on my watch!" Dimmick declared.

The judge is imbued with common sense and the common touch. There is no artifice. The press described her as a "judicial conservative" when U.S. Senators Dan Evans and Slade Gorton recommended her to President Reagan in 1984 for a seat on the federal bench. However, it went unmentioned that while she was tough on hardened criminals and brazen scofflaws, she was also inclined to be lenient with first offenders and those involved in non-violent crimes. Even some rapists, "especially repeaters, need special kinds of help," she said in 1976 when she was a Superior Court judge. "We know why burglars burgle – they think it’s a way to make a living. But rape – that’s still a question ... I think many women are too willing to lock them up and throw away the key. I believe in tough dealing, but also in practical help."

Dimmick on the King County Superior Court bench during
arguments over the Seattle teachers’ strike in 1978. Dimmick on the King County Superior Court bench during arguments over the Seattle teachers’ strike in 1978.

In a 1984 interview, Dimmick said labels "are stupid" because every good judge decides a case on the issues. Still, "During her four years on the state’s high bench, Justice Dimmick became perhaps the most conservative member regarding criminal matters," according to Sheldon. By the end of her tenure at the Temple of Justice, she was "disagreeing most often with moderate-to-liberal Justices Robert Utter (an arch-foe of the death penalty), James Dolliver and Vernon Pearson. She often found herself in the minority, filing dissents."

But she genuinely liked and respected those fellows, and when she disagreed, she strived not to be disagreeable. "When I write a dissent, I hope to get (enough votes to win the) case," Dimmick told the Supreme Court historian. "Sometimes I’ll write a dissent because I’m outraged ... I want to open their eyes. ‘What are you doing here?’ I’ll use rather stark language. I want to get their attention but I don’t want to be overbearing. ..."

Dimmick agonized over the Washington Supreme Court’s 1981 ruling (State v. Frampton, 95 Wn2D469) declaring the state’s death penalty statute unconstitutional. Dimmick was among the dissenters in the complex, 5-4 decision. "I can’t imagine anything more traumatic for any of us," she remarked later in the year. "Everybody had their strong, sincere convictions of what the law was – not what they felt personally but what the law required. And that’s what makes it difficult." She emphasized that it is a legislative function to make sure the law is correct.

Both Houses of the Legislature quickly passed a new death penalty bill and sent it to Gov. John Spellman, who signed it into law.

Carolyn Dimmick poses with her family after being sworn in
to the Washington Supreme Court on January 2, 1981. From
left: Her daughter Dana, husband Cyrus, Carolyn, her parents,
Margaret and Maurice Reaber, and son Taylor. Carolyn Dimmick poses with her family after being sworn in to the Washington Supreme Court on January 2, 1981. From left: Her daughter Dana, husband Cyrus, Carolyn, her parents, Margaret and Maurice Reaber, and son Taylor.

Charles Rodman Campbell, whose name will live in infamy, was the poster child for Judge Dimmick’s belief that the death penalty is merited for some savage crimes. She has now concluded, however, that "it’s outdated because it’s too expensive" – witness the fact that Campbell wasn’t executed until 10 years after she wrote the majority opinion in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 1984 that affirmed his death sentence for three incredibly vicious murders.

The debate still rages over whether the death penalty is unconstitutional, but no one argues that Campbell’s crimes were not "cruel and unusual." He was on work-release from prison in 1982 when he murdered a woman he had raped and sodomized eight years earlier while holding a knife to her infant daughter’s throat. Returning for revenge, he also killed the child – by then 8 – and a neighbor woman who had testified against him. He slashed their throats. Executioners had to strap the struggling Campbell to a board before they could fasten the noose around his neck. They later discovered that he had been sharpening a four-inch chunk of metal to create a blade.

"He was one," Judge Dimmick says with disgust. "Ugh!"

Above all, a judge’s job is to interpret and uphold the law, Dimmick says, not make the law. On the federal bench in 1995, she overturned the murder conviction and death sentence of a man who killed a Clallam County couple who had befriended him while he was in prison for armed robbery. Two jurors testified that during the trial they heard another juror mention that the defendant had a prior criminal record. Dimmick’s view was that the comment caused "no prejudicial error," but she pointed out that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made it clear her job was to determine whether juror misconduct had occurred. If it had, she was obliged to throw out the conviction.

In another notable case, Judge Dimmick in 1996 upheld the state’s sex-offender public notification law, denying a constitutional challenge by three recently released sex offenders who had argued that the law subjected them to further punishment in the form of harassment and ridicule. Dimmick concluded that "...The stigma of which plaintiffs complain is not created by the registration and notification provisions of the sexual-offender registration law but rather by the community’s reaction to (the sex offender’s) prior conduct."

"She didn’t just teach me about the law," says Dan Johnson, a Seattle attorney who was her law clerk in 1997-98. "She taught me about patience, tolerance and rising above personal disputes to seek justice."

One of Dimmick’s favorite quotes is from the famed legal scholar Roscoe Pound: "The law must be stable, but it must not stand still." Just when some people think they have her pigeon-holed, she demonstrates her intellectual independence. In a 1988 opinion from the federal bench overturning a Bellingham ordinance targeting pornography as dehumanizing to women, Judge Dimmick wrote, "...much as alteration (of sociological patterns) may be necessary and desirable, free speech, rather than the enemy, is a long-tested and worthy ally. To deny free speech in order to engineer social change ... erodes the freedoms of all and threatens tyranny and injustice ..."

In 1993, another free speech case offered some levity, but Dimmick again showed her stripes as a First Amendment protector when she balked at banning an environmental group’s ads depicting Smokey Bear as a chainsaw-wielding tool of the U.S. Forest Service.

The late Richard F. Broz, a former King County Superior Court judge and assistant U.S. attorney, called Dimmick the "quintessential judge" – "firm, fair, courteous" and hard-working, but also possessed of "a light touch."

On the federal bench, Judge Dimmick enjoyed the short-lived 1997 case of a self-described "milk-a-holic" who blamed his health problems on a life-long weakness for milk. Naming Safeway and the Dairy Farmers of Washington as defendants, he claimed "milk is just as dangerous as tobacco" and asked Dimmick to order warning labels on milk containers and regulate all dairy-product advertising. "Dismissed," said the judge, clearly unmooved.

Two good friends, Supreme Court Justice Carolyn Dimmick and King County Superior Court Judge Barbara Durham at a banquet in 1992. Two good friends, Supreme Court Justice Carolyn Dimmick and King County Superior Court Judge Barbara Durham at a banquet in 1992.

In 1995, while serving as chief judge of the U.S. District Court, she dismissed a class-action lawsuit by a Seattle attorney attempting to recover damages for businesses impacted by the 1994 Major League Baseball strike. Noting that on at least three occasions the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that similar issues were beyond the scope of federal antitrust laws, Judge Dimmick said the case at hand "presents a situation that the baseball sage Yogi Berra might describe as ‘déjà vu all over again.’ "

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals once referred to Judge Dimmick’s analysis of a particularly tricky case as "Solomon-like." Trial lawyers say she has the "perfect" judicial temperament. "You can’t put anything over on her," a veteran attorney noted.

Speaking of Solomon, in 1984 Dimmick wrote eloquently for a unanimous State Supreme Court in a "wrongful birth" case that made headlines. A woman and her spouse sued a doctor who performed a sterilization. Despite the tubal ligation, the woman became pregnant and delivered "a healthy, normal child." The couple sought damages to compensate for the costs and "emotional burdens" of rearing and educating the unplanned child. Justice Dimmick concluded that they were entitled only to medical and other expenses directly related to the child’s birth. "A child is more than an economic liability," she wrote. "A child may provide its parents with love, companionship, a sense of achievement and a limited form of immortality. ... The child may turn out to be loving, obedient and attentive or hostile, unruly and callous. The child may grow up to be president of the United States or to be an infamous criminal."

In the final analysis, Dimmick said, it’s impossible to weigh with reasonable certainty the costs of raising a child against the emotional benefits of parenthood. "It is a question which meddles with the concept of life and the stability of the family unit. Litigation cannot answer every question; every question cannot be answered in terms of dollars and cents." Further, the judge said she and her colleagues were convinced that there could be significant harm to the child as it grew older and discovered it was unwanted – "an ‘emotional bastard,’ who will someday learn that its parents did not want it and, in fact, went to court to force someone else to pay for its raising. ... It will undermine society’s need for a strong and healthy family relationship. We have not become so sophisticated a society to dismiss that emotional trauma as nonsense."

It was Dimmick at her most sagacious, mulling facts, sorting through precedents, testing the letter of the law with common sense.

Judge Lasnik says, "She never was a doctrinaire conservative. ... On the state Supreme Court, she was able to forge alliances with people from both the liberal wing, like Justice Dolliver, and people who were even more conservative. It’s way too much of a stereotype to say she’s ‘to the right of’ because on Social Security cases or cases involving people who were hurting and needed relief, she can be a real softy too. She’s not the kind of judge you come away talking about her intellectual capacity. It’s there but it doesn’t jump out at you as much as the graciousness, the courtesy, the respect, the relaxed manner, which are much more important in a lot of ways. I’m not saying she didn’t have tremendous intellectual power, but she is so modest and so self-effacing that she comes across much more as the people’s judge."

Lasnik adds, "I think the thing that’s underestimated about her, especially concerning her years on the state Supreme Court, is that she can (bring people together). As the first woman on the state Supreme Court, you know that is a tough place to suddenly change. Sandra Day O’Connor did it a year later with the U.S. Supreme Court. The kind of person who is first is always so important .... Just as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor turned out to be a remarkable pick for Ronald Reagan, Carolyn Dimmick turned out to be the perfect person because she was able to make her male colleagues adjust and accept without ever making them feel put upon, or under attack."

Reagan was certainly impressed. "We’ve read all your decisions," the president told Dimmick when he called to say she was his pick for the federal bench.

During her 20 years on the bench before the federal court appointment in 1985, Dimmick had been scrupulously nonpartisan, even though a biographical history of the State Supreme Court lists her as a Republican. That derives from the fact that like every other deputy during Chuck Carroll’s powerful career as King County prosecutor and county GOP chairman, Dimmick was required to make speeches for the Republican cause and boost the boss’s career.

The federal bench was a plum job that Dimmick happily accepted. Living during the week in Olympia and returning home to Seattle on weekends wasn’t the best situation, and federal judges serve for life under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, she would be presiding over a trial court rather than an appellate court, and Dimmick found that arena much more stimulating. She was also dismayed by the tedium of raising a campaign war chest and running for re-election, even though she shellacked her opponent in 1984. She is appalled by what judicial campaigns cost these days.

Dimmick took a considerable risk to ensure that her dear friend and kindred judicial soul, Barbara Durham, would succeed her on the State Supreme Court. On Jan. 14, 1985, immediately after she was sworn in for a new term of office and assured that her nomination to the federal bench was in the works, Dimmick resigned so that Governor John Spellman, a Republican, could appoint Durham on his last day in office. Governor-elect Booth Gardner, a Democrat, likely would have been otherwise inclined. By April, Dimmick had been confirmed to the federal bench by the U.S. Senate.

Durham went on to become the first-ever female chief justice. She called Dimmick a powerful role model. They met in the 1970s when "she was a district court judge in Redmond, and I was a brand-new judge on the Mercer Island District Court," Durham recalled in 1994. "I called her because she was the only other woman judge I knew. We had lunch together, and she told me what to do and what to expect."

Tragically, Justice Durham died at the age of 59 in 2002 of kidney failure, a complication of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Judge Dimmick was devastated by the loss of her friend. "She was a saint to Barbara Durham when she started to decline," says Judge Lasnik.

Judge Betty Howard, seated center on ottoman, at a Christmas
party at the Dimmick home in the 1980s with some of the
female lawyers she had befriended and mentored over the
years. Carolyn Dimmick is in the back row, fourth from left. Judge Betty Howard, seated center on ottoman, at a Christmas party at the Dimmick home in the 1980s with some of the female lawyers she had befriended and mentored over the years. Carolyn Dimmick is in the back row, fourth from left.

Carolyn Dimmick is loyal, and a friend for all seasons. Among her own mentors was Betty Taylor Howard, a big, brassy district court judge Dimmick met when she was still undecided about finishing law school. Howard had her spend some time in her courtroom. Referring to the lawyers who’d appeared before her that day, the judge said, "Well, you could do that."

Said Dimmick, "Well, I could certainly do it better than they’re doing it."

Howard said, "You might as well keep going to law school. What are you going to do?"

Dimmick said, "Well, keep working at the P-I."

"And Betty said, ‘Nah, keep going to law school.’

"So I did. And she was then my mentor forever."

They spent every Christmas Eve together for 50 years – the rest of Judge Howard’s life.

Former justice Faith Ireland – one of a five-member female majority on the State Supreme Court from 2003-2005 – says Dimmick was a mentor to all of the women who appeared in front of her or worked with her. "She always remains the same pleasant, plain-speaking, no nonsense person, no matter what position she has achieved. ... She has personal warmth but is firmly in control in the courtroom. ... When I would lose a case, she would call me back into chambers and gently explain why I lost and encourage me to keep trying cases."

"She was a wonderful trial judge," Dimmick’s longtime law clerk, Cheryl Bleakney, said in 2003 when the judge received the William L. Dwyer Outstanding Jurist Award. "She was unfailingly gracious and respectful to attorneys, witnesses and especially jurors. And that gracious, warm exterior covers a first-rate legal mind."

Among those who know Dimmick best is Georgia Kravik, her judicial assistant/law clerk. Kravik started out babysitting the judge’s children, then became her Superior Court bailiff. They’ve been friends for 44 years. "Above all, she is a person without affectation who treats everyone who comes before her with respect," Kravik says. "The private Carolyn Dimmick is the same. What you see is what you get. Her overriding charm, though not without healthy boundaries, is that she likes people. Carolyn is a friend-keeper, with a variety of people in her life, including grade school friends of 65 years, high school friends she still sees regularly and law school buddies. For me, it is great fun to be one of the many people who have been invited into the orbit that surrounds this stimulating woman’s life."

Debra Stephens, the newest female member of the State Supreme Court, called Judge Dimmick after she was appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire in 2007. "I was a little nervous about doing it because I had never met her, except at a reception," Stephens says, "but I was aware when I was appointed that the seat I hold was Judge Dimmick’s seat, and this seat has been held by a woman ever since. I admire all of the women who have served before me. But she was the first and I just wanted to share with her how much her career has done to inspire later generations of women lawyers and judges. So I just took a chance and called her up and said, ‘Gosh, if you have time I’d love to have coffee,’ and she was incredibly gracious. Not only did she immediately say ‘Yes,’ she invited me up to her chambers and gave me a great tour of the new Courthouse. ... Until then, I was unaware that she had such a role in the design of the building, everything from the layout and functionality to the art. She and I discovered we share a love of architecture and design. ... We just became fast friends."

Judge Dimmick has an artist’s eye and a strong sense of thrift. After going on senior status in 1997, she devoted much of the next seven years to overseeing planning and construction of the new $171 million U.S. Courthouse in downtown Seattle. Her fellow judges told the 9th Circuit they wanted her to be their go-between with the General Services Administration, the architects and contractors. She called herself "the tenant representative."

Critics said the northern tip of the retail district at 7th and Stewart was a poor site, especially given the need for heightened security in the wake of the devastating bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. "I have a hard time seeing how a courthouse that is fortress-like will contribute to the retail core," said Seattle City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck. Judge Dimmick countered that the courthouse would spur new development, including new legal offices. Noting that the building would include grass, trees, artwork and a plaza open to the public, she vowed that it wouldn’t be "a clunky concrete box."

On site practically every day, Judge Dimmick immersed herself in the details of the 23-floor, 615,000-square-foot project. "She was our eyes and ears," says Judge Lasnik, "and she did a fabulous job." Another of her colleagues, Judge John Coughenour, said, "Everyone – from the construction workers to the architects – loves working with her, and people listen when she talks."

"There was no other person who could have pulled it off as well as Carolyn Dimmick did," Lasnik says, "because she had the clout with her colleagues to force us to sit down and deal with issues now when we’re planning the building, rather than complain about them later. But she also helped the architect and the design people because they can’t get a judge to make a decision, but she can. She could come and say, ‘OK, here’s three possible fabrics you can have. Make a choice.’ She dragged us down to a warehouse in south Seattle where there was a mock courtroom set up. And she said, ‘Sit in the chair. Look at the sight-lines. This is what you’re going to get. Complain about it now when I can do something about it. Wait until it’s built, and I can’t do anything about it.’ She had the ability to speak with architects and designers because she has such personal design sensibility. And the trades people – the construction people – adored her because she’d put on a hardhat and go out with them. She was just like somebody’s mom or aunt. And they thought ‘Man, this is great.’ They wanted to do it right for the judge because she’s so neat. She’s so cool. There’s not another judge in the building who could have been able to deal with all those groups, and successfully."

When budget constraints required compromises, Dimmick was in thick of things. "We had to re-think and re-plan to come in on budget," she recalls, "but we didn’t change the quality or efficiency of the building." She helped ensure that modest materials produced an interior that is simultaneously striking and utilitarian, with state-of-the-art courtrooms. Every two years, the General Services Administration honors "The Best of the Best" federal projects in the nation. When it opened in 2004, Seattle’s new federal Courthouse received the highest honor from a panel of private-sector architects and builders, who noted that it was "completed on time and on budget, despite significant, unexpected challenges that included record inclement weather, a labor strike, the departure of a major joint venture partner and contaminated soils."

Judge Dimmick’s husband of 51 years died in 2006. A solid lawyer, his "real career was golf," she quipped. In fact, Cy Dimmick’s obituary observed that "to say he was a serious player is like saying Dickens was a serious writer." Cy doubtless would have loved that line, which was penned by his son-in-law, Bradley Scarp, much to the delight of the whole family.

When she was a King County District Court judge in 1969, Dimmick told a feature writer that she liked to go "junk-tiquing," enjoyed water sports and was "planning to take up golf, which her husband plays enthusiastically." We asked if she had ever taken up golf. The look on her face said, "Surely you jest?"

"I did take a couple of lessons at Cy’s request ... from Charlie Mortimer, the pro over at Inglewood Golf Club. Charlie would say, ‘You haven’t been practicing.’ And I’d say, ‘No Charlie, I’m working. I don’t have time to practice.’ He said, ‘You know, I don’t have time to teach you.’ I said, ‘It’s a deal!’ And that was the end of it. ... I planned to take it up, but it didn’t take. Let’s put it that way. If you could do it without having to practice I could have done it."

When it came to the law, practice was more joy than work for Carolyn Dimmick. The woman who had all those mixed emotions about being a lawyer has mastered every law job she’s had since 1953.

From her art-filled, immaculate 16th floor office overlooking the Space Needle and Puget Sound, the view is spectacular and the job still satisfying. A remarkably youthful 79, she’s not ready to fully retire. But how would she like to be remembered?

"Old. A hundred years old. How about that? ...I never met a legal job I didn’t love. Each one had its own aura and interest. It’s been a wonderful career."

Kirkland couldn’t keep her to itself.