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Taking Tough Stands in Stride

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, July 11, 2005

Tension was thick in the courtroom, audible in the strained voices of the opposing lawyers. The fight over how to protect endangered salmon from Columbia River and Snake River dams was fast approaching a pivotal decision by a judge who had twice rejected the government's salmon plans.

Then one of the lawyers asked U.S. District Judge James A. Redden whether he would visit the dams to see the latest conservation efforts. "I've been reluctant to do that," Redden deadpanned in his quiet baritone, "for fear that anyone seeing me approach the dam would say, 'I knew that SOB was going to try to run this place.' " Laughter filled the jampacked courtroom.

The moment says a lot about Redden. He is the judge who, according to critics, seized control of the Columbia and Snake rivers in a misguided environmental crusade after he threw out the Bush administration's latest salmon plan and in June ordered dam operators to spill more water for fish.

In contrast with the divided sentiments, Redden creates a distinctly friendly atmosphere on the federal court bench he has occupied for 25 years. He is quick with one-liners, using good-natured humor to make points rather than lecturing.

But as a judge, Redden has made no secret of his intense concern about the seriousness of the threats to Pacific salmon. And in the latest case, he openly chided agencies under the Bush administration for taking an approach to salmon conservation "more in cynicism than sincerity."

Redden's story is that of a one-time high school dropout born during the Great Depression who became a lawyer and a rising star in Oregon's Democratic Party -- a three-term state lawmaker and a would-be governor -- before accepting an appointment to U.S. District Court in Portland.

He was born in Springfield, Mass., in 1929, the son of a dentist. By high school age, with the nation at war in Europe and the Pacific, Redden lost interest in education. "I thought the best thing to do was join the Army." He dropped out and enlisted as the war was ending. He wound up serving two years in occupied Japan.

The work of a grunt soldier was enough to reawaken the student in him. Redden went back to high school, then on to Boston University and Boston College Law School. He attributes his choice of a law career to his parents: "They always used to joke, 'You'd make a great lawyer' -- I argued about everything," he says. The drama and challenging arena of the courtroom also appealed to him.

Among his first jobs out of law school was as a claims adjuster for an insurance company in Oregon, to which Redden moved in 1955 to make his fortune with his new wife, Joan Johnson Redden, his high school sweetheart. A year later, the couple moved to Medford, where he went to work as a trial lawyer, work he pursued for 17 years and still holds dear.

"I think it was the competitiveness, you know, seeing who can work harder," he says. "And you have to have an imagination. It certainly helped me as a trial judge because I know what the lawyers are up to," he says with a hearty chuckle.

In Medford, Redden immersed himself in Democratic politics, becoming party chairman for Jackson County. Public office soon followed. Robert Duncan, who would go on to represent Oregon in Congress for many years, talked Redden into running for the state Legislature seat he left in 1962. The race was so close it took three days to tally votes, while control of the House hinged on the outcome. Redden won by 210 votes, giving Democrats a majority.

Colleagues credit Redden with a key role in passage of the Oregon beach bill, the landmark 1967 legislation that established permanent public access to the state's 362-mile shoreline. The original bill was languishing in a House committee when an Associated Press reporter and soon others called attention to the matter -- triggering thousands of calls and letters from an alarmed public.

Republican Gov. Tom McCall came out in support, but lawmakers got bound up. "Coastal legislators were going to fight to the death to protect private ownership," says Roger Martin, a lobbyist in Salem who held a Republican House seat at the time.

Martin says the Republican House speaker appointed Redden, the minority leader, as special co-chairman of a committee to handle the bill. As Martin recalls it, the committee retreated to a private session at the apartment Martin shared with the other co-chairman, Lee Johnson.

"I went out and bought a couple cases of Blitz beer. They fought that thing out in one night," Martin says. The agreements worked out so subsequent meetings led by Redden and Johnson cleared the way for the beach bill to pass. Martin credits Redden's gift for putting people at ease and making them laugh.

"He epitomized the decency of politics at that time, where you could argue and fight and still remain friends," he says.

After three terms, Redden resumed full-time trial lawyering until 1972, when he ran for state treasurer and won his first statewide office. In the 1974 race for governor, he didn't make it past the Democratic primary against Bob Straub, who was elected. Redden was elected attorney general in 1976, and held that office when President Jimmy Carter nominated him for an opening on the federal bench in 1980.

Redden says his family was getting tired of the roller coaster of campaigns, and he was losing interest as well. Redden recounts a conversation he had at the time with former Gov. Tom McCall. "He said, 'The trouble with public life is you have to kiss everybody's . . . you know what."

Redden says McCall quickly added: "Of course you and I never had to do that!"

At age 76, his gap-toothed smile is gleefully boyish. Redden runs three miles a day, and five on weekends -- a routine he began at 50. He's a news junkie who pores carefully over The Oregonian each day, the twice a week Portland Tribune (his son, Jim, is a staff writer) and The New York Times on Sunday, not to mention online news. He has lunch every week with each of his two sons.

While making news mostly for salmon rulings, Redden spends about half his time on criminal cases. He proudly notes that he and others, including U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken in Eugene, are starting the first federal "drug court" cases, inspired by the successful nonfederal court programs for drug-addicted offenders. After treatment, counseling and frequent court appearances, successful participants can receive reduced probation.

But Redden is well aware of the potential historical importance of his rulings on salmon and hydropower. It is a case he eagerly took on when the longtime overseer of the endless litigation, U.S. District Judge Malcolm Marsh, opted out.

"These are important cases, especially Endangered Species Act cases," Redden says. "I think of the salmon, the wild salmon, as worth trying to save."

The first Snake River salmon landed on the Endangered Species List in 1991. Three presidential administrations since have struggled to come up with legal ways to allow the big federal dams to operate while killing and injuring federally protected fish, now comprising 13 populations listed or proposed for listing.

Redden in 2003 rejected the plan originally developed under President Clinton. He said there was no certainty that some steps called for in the plan would occur because they were outside federal control.

When the judge dumped the Bush plan, he said it had the effect of "substantially lowering" the bar required for offsetting the harm from dams to migrating salmon. What's more, he ordered federal dam operators to release more water over the dams to speed juvenile salmon downstream, an action that could cost the region more than $57 million in lost power generation.

It was too much, according to critics such as Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, whose district includes farms and industries that rely on cheap power and barge transport made possible by the dams. Hastings scoffed at the "Portland judge" who "grabbed control of our dams and started running them himself."

Idaho Sen. Larry Craig said Redden had no scientific basis to justify ordering more water spilled. The resulting boost in electricity prices, Craig said, will "place an unjustified burden on the shoulders of ratepayers in the Northwest."

Redden takes it in stride. "Everybody's guarding their own bastion," he says.

To protect salmon as required under the Endangered Species Act, Redden says, irrigators, electric utilities and others will probably have to make more sacrifices.

"I have said, and I still believe, that we can do it without breaching those dams," he says. "I've got to say, let's get the politics out of this and see what we can do with our brains," he adds, referring to recent news reports of Craig's attempt to cut the budget for the Fish Passage Center, which monitors salmon runs.

"They keep coming up with scientific data indicating that dams do kill fish, so we'll take the money away from them and that will solve the problem," Redden says, eyes rolling.

"I think the Endangered Species Act gives us a way to have power and irrigation, and transportation and salmon. What it takes is using science to find the way to do that. I know enough about the science now to think that it is highly probable, and if we don't," he says, "it will be because we didn't try."

Joe Rojas-Burke
Taking Tough Stands in Stride
The Oregonian, July 11, 2005

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