Justice Thomas Balmer

Oregon Supreme Court

"The practice of law could - not necessarily would, but could - be a starting point for the lawyer to seek to understand the larger forces of society and history."

So wrote Thomas Balmer in 1992. Balmer is now an associate justice on the Oregon Supreme Court. When he wrote that line, Balmer was a partner with Ater Wynne - and on sabbatical. Most lawyers on sabbatical take a dream vacation and get far away from the practice of law. Justice Balmer escaped to Scotland and Europe with his wife and their two children, but his mind continued to wrestle with what it means to be a lawyer.

Justice Balmer spent part of that sabbatical studying Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and writing a law review article, Holmes on Law as a Business and as a Profession, 42 J. of Legal Educ. 591 (1992). The article discusses Holmes' views on the tension between the law as a business - timesheets, marketing and billing - and the law as a profession where hopefully, wrote Balmer, a lawyer "might strive for something greater than oneself."

Holmes believed that the law as a profession offered the opportunity to "live greatly," to connect with the bigger questions of life. And - given that he spent part of his sabbatical writing about the legal profession - so does Justice Balmer.

Balmer grew up in Portland and graduated from Jackson High School. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1974 and from the University of Chicago Law School in 1977. Since law school, Justice Balmer's career has involved both private practice and public-sector practice.

In 1977, Balmer began his career in private practice with Choate, Hall & Stewart in Boston. Justice Balmer left Boston in 1979 for Washington, D.C., and spent a year as a trial attorney for the US Department of Justice, in the Antitrust Division. At DOJ he focused on energy policy and began his career-long interest in antitrust law.

In 1980, Justice Balmer returned to private practice in D.C. with Wald, Harkrader & Ross, continuing to focus on antitrust issues. Balmer began writing articles on antitrust law, perhaps seeking what Holmes would describe as the profession of law - something more meaningful than the daily business of law offered to an associate at a D.C. law firm.

Justice Balmer returned to Portland in 1982 and joined Lindsay, Hart, Neil & Wagner, becoming a partner in 1986. By 1990, with the split in the Lindsay Hart firm, Balmer became a partner with Ater Wynne. In private practice in Portland, Justice Balmer emphasized public and government law. He litigated employment, antitrust and energy cases, including several energy cases before FERC. He also continued to publish articles on antitrust law and related topics.

In 1993, Balmer returned to the public sector to serve as the Oregon Deputy Attorney General, the number two position in the Oregon Department of Justice. There, Balmer supervised legal advice and litigation for the state, advised agency heads and elected officials and represented Oregon in trial and appellate court proceedings.

While at Oregon DOJ, Justice Balmer argued before the US Supreme Court in a commerce clause case, Oregon Waste Systems v. Department of Environmental Quality, 511 U.S. 93 (1994). As for the outcome, Justice Balmer is quick to point out that the two most ideologically divergent members of the court, Justices William H. Rehnquist and Harry A. Blackmun, both agreed with him. Unfortunately, the majority did not.

Balmer achieved better success for Oregon, arguing before the Ninth Circuit in the initial constitutional challenge to Oregon's Death with Dignity Act in Lee v. State of Oregon, 106 F.3d 1382 (9th Cir. 1997). Regardless of one's personal views on physician-assisted suicide, the Lee case undeniably presented Balmer - and all who worked on the case - an opportunity Holmes would have cherished, and opportunity to "live greatly," to connect the practice of law with the bigger questions of life.

In 1997 Justice Balmer returned to private practice at Ater Wynne. He became Ater Wynne's managing partner in 1998. As managing partner, Balmer took satisfaction in the business of the law and enjoyed helping Ater Wynne define and achieve its business goals.

Balmer also found time for the profession. While at Ater Wynne, he was a board member and later the chair of Multnomah County Legal Services, Inc. He was and remains a board member of the Classroom Law Project. Justice Balmer also serves on the Advisory Committee of the Campaign for Equal Justice.

In 2001, Governor Kitzhabar appointed Balmer to the Oregon Supreme Court.

Justice Balmer brings geographic diversity to the Court, having practiced in Washington, D.C., and on both the East and West coasts. Justice Balmer's background as a civil litigator in private practice complements the experience of the other justices, such as the trial judge experiences of former Chief Justice Wallace Carson and Retired Justice R. William Riggs, the extensive criminal law practice of Chief Justice Paul J. De Muniz, and the background of several members of the court as former Court of Appeals judges. Justice Balmer considers himself "very fortunate" to be on the court. The position reaffirms his belief in the value of an independent judiciary, the rule of law and the judicial system as a "public good."

Were he alive, Oliver Wendell Holmes would add that the job of associate justice also provides ample opportunity to "live greatly" or, as Justice Balmer would say, the opportunity to strive "for something greater than oneself."

Given his track record to date, Justice Balmer seems up to the task.

Originally authored by Chris McCracken and printed in the September 2004 Multnomah Lawyer
Updated for the Internet in 2007