Justice Robert Durham

Oregon Supreme Court

Justice Robert D. Durham's rise from humble beginnings to one of Oregon's most important positions is the direct result of hard work and a passion to ensure that justice is available to all.

Durham was born and raised in Whittier, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, in what he describes as a very blue-collar family. "In the vernacular of that area, my family was referred to as being from 'below the boulevard.'"

His father owned an auto and truck repair business. When asked to describe the worst job he ever had, Durham says it was the work his father made him do at the auto shop. "My father gave me the dirtiest, worst jobs in the shop - like using the steam cleaner on 100 degree days - but he did it so I would stay in school and appreciate an education."

After graduating from high school in 1965, Durham entered Whittier College. He was the first person in his family ever to attend college.

During his junior year of college, Durham first began thinking about becoming a lawyer. He was encouraged to apply to law school by several of his professors and by friends who were attending law school at the time.

Outside of the classroom, Durham coached several high school sports teams, having played football and baseball growing up. In the summers during several of his college years, he lived and worked in Hawaii. He also trained with several of the football players with whom he lived and attempted to perfect his surfing skills. After taking the LSAT's and graduating from Whittier College in 1969 with a bachelor's degree in political science, Durham sold his surfboard and went off to law school at the University of Santa Clara.

Law school was an exciting and enjoyable time for Durham, and he was stimulated by the school's excellent professors. Durham married during his second year at law school.

After graduating from law school in 1972, Durham migrated north and accepted a clerking job with Justice Dean Bryson of the Oregon Supreme Court, which was extremely rewarding both in terms of the work he handled and in the friendships he made with the justices and court employees.

While clerking at the court, Durham met Ted Kulongoski. Kulongoski was counsel to the Oregon House Committee on Labor, and he had been instrumental in the passage of Oregon's first public sector collective bargaining law in 1973. As Durham's clerkship was nearing its end, Kulongoski convinced him to join in forming a new four-lawyer law firm, even though Kulongoski was the only one of the four who knew the others. In August 1974, they opened the firm Kulongoski, Heid, Durham & Drummonds in an old house that still stands at the intersection of 12th and Pearl in Eugene. The house had four bedrooms, and each lawyer took one of the bedrooms as his office.

The firm focused its practice on labor law and civil rights work, with a special emphasis on representing public sector employees and unions. Durham's firm was the first boutique firm in Oregon to jump into this new area of the law. Besides his labor law and civil rights work, Durham also handled some criminal cases and did some general practice work. In 1983, the firm moved its office to Portland.

Durham found his law practice to be very enriching - the aspect he enjoyed most was "helping people right wrongs and accomplish justice." The worst parts of the practice were the administrative hassles, especially having to track his days in six-minute increments.

In 1991, Governor Barbara Roberts appointed Durham to a seat on the Oregon Court of Appeals. He later was elected to that seat.

In 1994, Durham was appointed to the Oregon Supreme Court, and subsequently was elected to that same seat. In 1996 and 1997, during what otherwise would have been a vacation from the court, Durham attended the University of Virginia Law School and earned an LLM degree in judicial process.

When asked if any one case or opinion stands out among the many he has heard and decided during his 13 years on Oregon's appellate courts, Durham modestly stated that he had the good fortune to work on many cases of importance to the people of Oregon. He also takes pride in the fact that the court's opinions often are a "group product," and he is continually impressed with the high quality of the work product put out by the court.

According to Justice Durham, one of the best parts of serving on the Supreme Court has been the ability to meet and interact with the many current and former Supreme Court justices, including such outstanding jurists as Hans Linde, Ed Peterson and Richard Unis.

When asked if there is anything he would change about his current position on the state's highest court, Durham lamented only his commute to work (he lives in the Portland area). "Growing up in Los Angeles and seeing people make three-hour commutes, I said I never wanted to make a long commute to work."

Justice Durham also offered some tips for attorneys who appear for oral argument before the court. "Be ready to concede obvious weaknesses." The justices use oral argument to narrow arguments and achieve a better understanding of the case by "trimming away the underbrush." Lawyers need to be conscious of doing everything they can to simplify, rather than complicate, the issues at every opportunity. Also, "complete candor is a must at all times."

Justice Durham acknowledged that sitting on the Oregon Supreme Court is an "awesome responsibility," and he is "very grateful" to the Oregon people and bar for entrusting him with that position.

Originally authored by David Riewald and printed in the May 2004 Multnomah Lawyer
Updated for the Internet in 2007