King County Superior Court: The Early Years

  • By Sheila Farr
  • Posted 12/11/2022
  • Essay 22607
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The superior-court system of Washington was established by the state constitution, and in 1889 Isaac J. Lichtenberg (1845-1905) was elected the first judge of King County Superior Court. In the early years of the court, judges were nominated by political parties and the candidates were all white males — as were the voters. It was easy to vote a "straight ticket" by placing a single "x" above the candidates of that party. Under this system, the court was subject to frequent purges until 1908, when judicial candidates were separated from party affiliations and ran independently, on their own merit. By that time, several of the court's first judges had died, and the King County Bar Association commemorated them by commissioning portraits by one of Seattle's preeminent artists, Ella Shepard Bush (1863-1948). In all, Bush painted six oil portraits for the court of men who represented the foundation of Washington law and politics. But power began to shift in 1910, when Washington women permanently won the vote. In 1914 Reah Mary Whitehead (1883-1972) defeated nine male candidates to be elected justice of the peace for King County, the first woman to hold that position.

The First Courts

On November 11, 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) proclaimed Washington the 42nd state of the union, the new constitution established the government's judicial branch and designated the superior courts as the trial courts of unlimited jurisdiction. It specified that, "until otherwise directed by the legislature there shall be one judge ... for the County of King," (Constitution, Art. IV, Sec. 5). Judicial salaries were fixed at $3,000 per year, with half paid by the state and half by the counties.

At that time, politics and the judicial system went openly arm in arm, with the parties choosing their own judicial candidates. Democrat Isaac Lichtenberg won the first election over Republican Julius A. Stratton (1844-1924). Lichtenberg, a wounded Civil War veteran, had suffered pain from a bullet in his leg until earlier that year, when the leg was amputated. He arrived on crutches for his first day at the court and — facing a long backlog of cases — immediately set to work. He heard his first case the following morning, Smith v. Smith, a divorce action. The judge granted a divorce to Mrs. Smith and awarded her custody of the couple's child.

More than 1,300 suits were filed during the court's first six months, and it was obvious more judges were needed. The state legislature increased the number of King County judicial positions to three. Governor Elisha P. Ferry (1825-1895) appointed Julius Stratton and Thomas J. Humes (1847-1904) — a highly regarded Seattle lawyer who had previously served in the Territorial Legislature — to fill the positions until the general election of 1890. They began hearing cases the same week, on Saturday, March 9, and, as they waited for a new courthouse to be completed, conducted business in makeshift spaces created by dividing up the only courtroom.

A New Courthouse

The two-story building where they worked housed the jail, county clerk, and auditor, and had served as the local courthouse since 1881, when the courtroom was added on. As a territorial government, the county had no authority to build a courthouse, so the building was dubbed the County Building. With statehood, King County hired architect W. A. Ritchie (1864-1931) to construct a bona fide courthouse at 7th Avenue and Alder Street, among the mansions of the city's founders on First Hill, overlooking downtown. Ritchie designed a "neo-classical Victorian" structure and chose sandstone, brick, iron, and cement as the best materials to construct the state's first fireproof building ("Courthouse History"). The new courthouse was completed in 1890 at a cost of $200,000, and the judges moved up the hill to their fancy new digs. The old county building was sold to the city of Seattle and renamed City Hall. (It would be demolished in 1909.)

Politics and the Court

In the election of 1890, Humes was elected on the Republican ticket, along with Richard Osborn (1845-1905), to serve with Judge Lichtenberg. Osborn, too, was a Civil War veteran, had enlisted at age 16 in Company D of Missouri's 23rd Infantry, and was severely wounded on Union General Sherman's March to the Sea. At the following election, Lichtenberg was defeated on party lines, but a third Republican, J. W. Langley, was elected in his place. Four years later, all three were swept from their seats in the populist wave of 1896, to be replaced by Democrats Orange Jacobs (1827-1914), William Hickman Moore (1861-1946) — who later would serve as Seattle mayor — and E. D. Benson.

At least two of the defeated judges did well for themselves the next year, when Gold Rush fever struck Seattle. Osborn, freed from his duties as a judge, took off for the Klondike, with apparent success. Humes, a popular figure in Seattle public affairs, was selected by the city council to serve as mayor after his predecessor, William Wood (1858-1917), abdicated to take part in the Gold Rush. Twice re-elected, Humes and his administration oversaw completion of the Cedar River water system, dedicated the city lighting plant, and extended and consolidated public rail transportation. It was reported that under Humes's leadership, "Seattle became a modern and metropolitan city" ("Council Pays a Tribute").

Meanwhile, at King County Superior Court, Orange Jacobs, a seasoned leader and widely admired judge, had handled most of the criminal cases during his tenure. As a former chief justice of the Territorial Supreme Court, two-term congressional delegate, and former Seattle mayor, he was more than qualified for his position. But in the next election cycle, the court was once again purged, with three Republican judges taking over. At that time, voting a "straight ticket" was easily done by a single "x" at the top of a column of candidates. That mark selected every person in the party, "whether running for governor or wreckmaster (whose duty it was to locate and mark the debris of marine disasters) or judge of the Superior Court" (Birdseye, 5). Judges weren't chosen by merit, but solely on party affiliation. This system led to a lack of continuity in the court and the loss of experienced and honorable judges — not to mention the inherent ethical tension of mixing party politics with legal decisions.


After 11 years with three judges serving the court, King County's population had grown significantly, as had the Superior Court docket. In 1901 the state legislature finally authorized a fourth judicial position, and the governor appointed a gifted young lawyer, George Meade Emory (1869-1906) to the job. A direct descendent of Benjamin Franklin and graduate of Cornell University, Emory was regarded by his peers as "one of the most promising men of the profession" ("Judge Emory ..."). Sworn in on February 18, 1901, he served until the following election, when he ran as a Democrat and was defeated by Republican George E. Morris (d. 1919), becoming another victim of the "straight ticket" voting system. 

Emory returned to private law practice, and in 1906 his death made lurid front-page headlines after he was shot and killed in his home by 19-year-old Chester Thompson. The judge was just 37, and left a widow and six young children. The shooter — the son of prominent Seattle attorney Will H. Thompson (1848-1918) — was infatuated with the judge's niece and had been rebuffed. Defended in court by his father, in a closely followed, sensational trial, Chester was acquitted on the grounds of insanity. Will Thompson's closing argument was reportedly so passionate that everyone in court was in tears – except Emory's widow and the murderer.

In 1903 the legislature authorized a fifth judicial position and in the November election a full slate of Republican judges retained office. In 1905 a sixth position was added. The following year Judge A. W. Frater (1856-1925), elected in 1903, established the county's first juvenile court.

Commemoration and Continuation

Around this time, two of the founding superior court judges died and the court began to consider its history as well as its future. Members of the King County Bar Association commemorated the late judges Humes and Osborn by commissioning portraits of them from pioneering Seattle artist Ella Shepard Bush (1863-1948). The oil on canvas paintings, ornately framed, were hung at the courthouse in 1905. Soon after, the court's first judge, Lichtenberg died, and Bush was asked to paint his portrait. Then, in 1906, after Emory was murdered, Bush was commissioned again. All the judges were well-known public figures and Bush was a widely acclaimed artist, so no signage was added to identify the portraits, to their later detriment.

By this point it apparently had become obvious that judges should not be elected on a partisan basis, and in 1908, for the first time, judicial candidates did not run with party affiliations. This brought a rush of fresh lawyers to the ballot along with all but one of the incumbents. However, it was also the first time a primary election was held in the state and — as the primary law was initially written — it allowed the six judicial candidates who received the most primary votes to appear on the November ballot unopposed, with their names listed under both the Republican and Democratic party. The result was that all the incumbents who ran kept their positions and one new judge, Wilson R. Gay (1859?-1920), was added.

By 1911 legislators had approved a total of nine judicial positions for King County. On March 22nd that year Governor Marion E. Hay (1865-1933) appointed two new judges, King Dykeman (1874-1931) and Robert W. Prigmore (1865-1911), to the bench. Dykeman served on the court for 14 years and is credited with establishing a groundbreaking Juvenile Court facility. He later would resign from the court to become the publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Prigmore had made a name for himself as Seattle's deputy prosecuting attorney and was known for his modesty and high ethical standards. However, his career was cut short just four months into his service on the court when he was mistakenly shot and killed in a hunting accident by his close friend and former law partner, R. H. Evans. 

Once again, Bush was engaged to paint a portrait of a recently deceased judge, this one just 46 years old. And then, in 1914, Jacobs died. The grand old man of Washington politics and law, Jacobs was a prominent supporter of women's suffrage and had held, in the territory and the state, almost every position of power and responsibility. Now Bush was commissioned to paint a sixth portrait for the courthouse.

New Home, Lost Heritage

In 1916, upon the completion of a new five-story courthouse at 3rd Avenue and James Street, all six portraits were installed there and prominently displayed. But over the course of a century, the names and importance of the judges and the artist were forgotten. The paintings were neglected, and sometime between 2014 and 2016 they were removed from the courthouse walls. Three were lost or destroyed; three remain in storage, badly damaged. Those six pioneering judges were emblematic of the transition from a rugged territory where frontier justice prevailed, to the more regulated — and eventually more representative — 42nd state of the union. At a time when white males held all positions of power, judges helped craft a legal system and implement it. They played leading roles at pivotal moments in our history — as Civil War combatants, as political leaders, and as lawyers and judges.

With the support of some of these men, the power structure began to shift in 1910, when women permanently gained the vote in Washington. Was it a coincidence that in November of that year, a record 125 divorce cases were filed in King County? "So great was the increase in this class of suits that the judges began to place every bar practicable in the way of such actions. No divorce was granted under a year after marriage, and thirty days' notice was required before hearing" (History of Seattle, 313).

But now women had a voice. In 1914, those newly enfranchised voters help elect Reah Mary Whitehead (1883-1972) as justice of the peace for King County, the first woman to hold that position. And in 1926, Bertha Knight Landes (1868-1943) was elected Seattle mayor, the first female mayor of a major U.S. city.


Story Birdseye, History of the Superior Court of King County, Washington, unpublished typescript; Seattle, Washington, Jan. 1, 1966, held by Seattle Public Library; Clarence Bagley, History of King County, Washington, vol. 1, (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1929); Clarence Bagley, The History of Seattle, Vol. 1, Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916; "History of the Bar," Washington State Bar Association website accessed October 3, 2022 (; "Washington State Constitution," Washington State Archives website accessed November 2, 2022 (; accessed 11/2/2022. "Courthouse History," King County website accessed November 7, 1922 (; "Ex-Judge Dykeman of Seattle Dead," The New York Times, September 11, 1931, p. 21;H. E. Hines, An Illustrated History of the State of Washington, (Chicago: Lewis Publishing Company, 1893); Proceedings of the Washington State Bar Association, 22nd Annual Convention, Olympia, Washington, 1911; "Will Dig Gold," The Seattle Times, August 3, 1897, p. 2; "Former Mayor Humes Drops Dead in Alaska," Ibid., November 10, 2004, p. 1; "Council Pays a Tribute," Ibid., November 15, 1904, p. 7; "Judge Osborn is Dead," Ibid., April 3, 1905, p. 2; "Judge Emory Shot Down by Love-Crazed Youth!", Ibid., July 8, 1906, p. 1; "Paints Portraits of Deceased Judges," Ibid., September 3, 1905, p. 7; "Judge Lichtenberg a Jurist of Great Force," Ibid., September 17, 1905, p.9; "Tells of Tragedy As He Awaits Death," Ibid., July 9, 1906, p. 3; "Judge Prigmore Killed by Friend," Ibid., July 19, 1911, p. 1; "Bench and Bar Pay Tribute to Prigmore," Ibid., July 21, 1911, p. 18; "Death Comes to Orange Jacobs," Ibid., May33, 1914, p. 27; HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Ella Shepard Bush (1863-1948) (by Sheila Farr), "Wood, William D. (1858-1917)" (by Louis Fiset), "Evangeline Starr becomes King County's second female Justice of the Peace in 1941" (by HistoryLink Staff), (accessed November 1, 2022).

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