A Judge's Judge
Dwyers signature accomplishment on the bench was the 1991 spotted owl ruling that led to the Northwest Forest Plan, which protected 8 million acres of Pacific Northwest ancient forest. His opinion, reprinted contemporaneously on the Washington Posts editorial page, was not the dry legal prose we expect from judges, but a thoughtful and persuasive justification for saving old-growth forests. In its conclusion, Dwyer said, The argument that the mightiest economy on earth cannot afford to preserve old growth forests for a short time, while it reaches an overdue decision on how to manage them, is not convincing today. It would be even less so a year or a century from now.
The durability and prescience of Dwyers ruling is even more impressive a decade later. Dwyers predictions of dramatic changes in the timber industry that would minimize the economic consequences of old-growth forest protection have come true. Private lands did increase production to offset public logging declines, and raw log exports plummeted by two-thirds in the years following his decision. He recognized that the spotted owl issue was emblematic of the Pacific Northwests economic and social transformation from a resource-extraction economy to one based on information technology and services. No doubt his ruling was the blueprint for President Clintons famous Forest Summit in Portland a year later, and the resulting Northwest Forest Plan that slashed logging levels by 80 percent.
Nor is it any coincidence that shortly following his passing, the Bush Administration announced its intent to dismantle the Northwest Forest Plan. The Bush team knew full well that its meatball surgery on the Plan would be dead on arrival in Dwyers courtroom. Now the administration can be more hopeful that it will find a judge with less savvy and understanding of the issues.
Dwyer was a lawyers lawyer and a judges judge, says Earthjustices Todd True, one of the attorneys for environmental groups in the spotted owl case. His courtroom was a classroom for newly appointed judges wishing to learn from the best how the law works in practice. Whether you won or lost before him, his intelligence, diligence and charm made for a memorable experience. Dwyers joint nomination to the bench by liberal Democrat Dan Evans and conservative Republican Slade Gorton (surely one of the few matters on which they agreed) showed the esteem in which he was held. The durability of his spotted owl ruling is due as much to his character as to his legal reasoning.
On a personal note, although I spent many hours in his courtroom and submitted scores of expert affidavits for his consideration, I never once exchanged even a pleasantry with Dwyer. Nevertheless, years after the spotted owl trials, he always answered personally the brief correspondences I would send including references to his spotted owl decision. I feel privileged to have known the man, if only in this small way.