Jack Tanner, First Black U.S. Judge, Dies at 86

Jack Tanner
Jack Tanner "was about civil rights, justice," a judge says. (Dan Delong - AP)
Associated Press
Friday, January 13, 2006

SEATTLE -- Jack Tanner, the first black federal judge in the Northwest who was known for his sometimes controversial civil rights rulings, died Jan. 10 of cancer. He was 86.

Judge Tanner died at home, about six months after doctors diagnosed pancreatic cancer, fellow Judge Franklin D. Burgess said. Judge Tanner was nominated to the bench by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

In 1983, Judge Tanner found the state guilty of sex discrimination and ordered it to implement a "comparable worth" program, which would have given pay raises to about 15,000 state workers, mostly women.

"He was proud of that," Burgess said. "He was about civil rights, justice . . . without regard to race, creed or color. That was just the way he saw life, and he thought everyone else should see it that way, too."

The 1983 ruling was overturned by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which said the existing wage gap was not proof of discrimination, and the state later settled the case for $482 million in back and prospective pay over six years. Because that money was rolled into employees' base pay, thousands of state workers today make more than they otherwise would.

Judge Tanner also was known for having his decisions reversed. A 2004 analysis by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer found that he had been reversed at least 146 times since 1982 -- often because he deviated from sentencing guidelines.

Sometimes he gave exceptionally harsh sentences; in 1998, he ordered an extremely light one -- a one-day sentence for assault with intent to kill in the case of an abused woman who attacked her husband. The sentence was overturned.

"Jack was out of step, but he didn't care," said retired King County Superior Court judge Charles V. Johnson. "He had his own ideas about the judiciary and what judges ought to do, and he had the courage to do it."

Jack Edward Tanner was born in Tacoma, Wash., in 1919 and served in the Army during World War II.

His father was a longshoreman who long campaigned for blacks to be allowed to join the union, and Judge Tanner himself worked for years on the waterfront until graduating from the University of Washington's law school in 1955 and opening a law office in Tacoma.

Judge Tanner became active in the NAACP, serving as its regional leader from 1957 to 1965 and on its national board of directors. President John F. Kennedy invited him and other civil rights leaders to the White House in 1963.

In 1966, Judge Tanner was the state's first black candidate for governor. He finished a distant third in the 1968 Democratic primary after a campaign during which shots were fired at his house.

He took senior status at the U.S. District Court in Tacoma in 1991 but said he kept working because he saw little chance of being replaced by a black judge.

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