Public Service Voices

Life in the Law

A profile of the late Judge James "Ben" McInturff by his son, UWLS Professor Theo Myhre


Life in the law presents each of us with the unexpected opportunities of a lifetime. Certainly, at the age of ten, I never would have dreamed that I would enter a career in teaching, nor that I would stand behind a podium addressing the Washington State Court of Appeals during a memorial session of the court for my dad. Judge James "Ben" McInturff passed away after serving for many decades as a district court judge and then as an appellate court judge, finally retiring as Chief Judge of Division III in Spokane, Washington. His life reflects several key lessons for anyone embarking on this profession. I offer these observations to you as we begin this academic year.

First, allow the law to change you. Ben was an athletic young man and served in the United States Marine Corps at the end of WWII. He contracted polio, which left him paralyzed from the neck down for many years. Although he recovered the partial use of his arms, he never walked again. The experience of suffering changed the course of his life. He had never been particularly intellectual, but his mind became one of his greatest strengths. Ben was the first significantly disabled law student to attend Gonzaga Law School. His education taught him to think critically, to listen carefully, and to analyze rigorously. These skills served him well, and he became the first disabled person elected to the judiciary in Washington.

Second, use the challenges in your life to bond with other people. Ben’s struggle with polio and with being a paraplegic in 1950s America provided him with a sense of fairness, justice and compassion. He needed to rely on people. And people were happy to work with him. His connection to people arose not from his level of professional skill or the strengths of his abilities, but rather from his honesty in facing his personal challenges. It is this honesty concerning our challenges that truly allows other people to join us on our paths through life and to share their own paths with us. Mutual vulnerability brings people together more effectively than personal achievement.

Third, serve a purpose greater than yourself. Ben believed strongly in service. Every ability that we possess acts as an opportunity to serve other people in need. As a student he sought to serve his community as an attorney. As an attorney he sought to serve his community as a judge. As a judge he sought to serve his community as a humanitarian. If a civic organization existed that helped vulnerable people, then Ben was part of it. Today, Spokane is a wheelchair accessible city largely because of Ben’s efforts, not merely because of legal requirements that were legislated long after the fact. In terms of law, Ben’s judicial opinions always favored fairness and equity. He believed that justice should serve the disadvantaged more than the powerful. Consequently, he was a great dissenter. But, upon further appellate review, many of his dissents were adopted by the Washington Supreme Court as majority opinions. In this way, he helped to guide the common law of Washington.

Fourth, challenge yourself to continually learn, love and live well. Education, be it through school or through experience, rejuvenates the human heart and spirit. It may be difficult or even painful in the learning process, but continual learning makes it possible to change with the demands of life and the world around us. Ben took part in the first judicial masters program at the University of Virginia. Two judges from every state attended. During two summers, they learned the latest legal and economic theories, studied at the Inns of Court in London, and attended Oriel College at Oxford. Combining law with travel gave an unexpected breadth to their legal careers. Yet, as part of the family members who accompanied the judges, I saw clearly that the friendships and the love of family made their life-long careers possible. Loving well and living a full life contributed immeasurably to Ben’s ability to serve as a judge and to help people in our community. The integration of each part of our lives reinforces our abilities in all the other areas. Ben taught me that learning, loving and embracing life are vital for service to others. They not only allow the world to change us but allow us to change the world. If you remain committed to the process, life in the law may provide one of the most meaningful paths in society today. I look forward to making this part of the journey together.

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