Recent Obituaries
In Memoriam Archive

From Prison Blues to a Judge's Robes

Robert Douglas Wollheim ’70

September 21, 2019, in Portland.

Bob lived by the words “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” and “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” From the day in 1967 when he was imprisoned for refusing to fight in Vietnam until the day in 2014 when he retired from the bench of the Oregon State Court of Appeals, his commitment to justice never wavered.

Bob came to Reed in 1966 from the South Side of Chicago, and attributed his ideas about fairness to his parents, Beatrice and Caesar, and to his Jewish heritage. Between 1967 and 1969, he lived in an off-campus house called The Cosmos with Len Brackett ’70, David Simon ’70, Frank Poliat ’70, Laura Shill Schrager ’70, and Sam Schrager ’70. Among his other longstanding Reed compatriots were Jim Jackson ’70 and Selah Chamberlain ’70, who was also imprisoned for refusing induction.

As a sophomore at Reed, Bob surrendered his draft card at the Selective Service induction center in Portland. He was then reclassified from 2-S (student deferment status) to 1-A delinquent and drafted. He was tried before Gus J. Solomon ’26, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for Oregon. Solomon, widely known as liberal, was pained by the prospect of jailing Bob and urged him to become a conscientious objector instead. Bob refused, insisting that he was acting for political, not religious, reasons. It distressed him that his lawyer went along with the judge’s advice not to have a jury trial or to call any witnesses, and that he himself couldn’t speak until his sentencing hearing. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

As one of about a hundred draft resisters imprisoned at Safford, Arizona, Bob experienced intense loneliness, but he also connected with a wide range of prisoners. He observed different styles of activism and recognized that his own approach was political but not relentlessly so. After he had served almost five months of his sentence, a U.S. Supreme Court decision voided the Selective Service System’s practice of punishing protesters by drafting them. Bob was freed, his felony expunged, and he returned to Portland. The decision that triggered Bob’s release from prison applied only to prisoners who had appealed their convictions on the precise grounds cited in the decision. Those without such pending appeals stayed in prison, which both horrified Bob and showed him the power of the law.

“As it turned out, the lawyer’s strategy for the appeal linked Bob to the Supreme Court case that was decided soon after, and that’s what sprung him from prison,” Sam Schrager explained. “Bob’s own case helped him appreciate how ignorant defendants often are about the law and piqued his own interest.” 

In August 1970, after he was released, Bob helped organize demonstrations by the People’s Army Jamboree, a coalition of antiwar groups protesting the American Legion convention held in Portland. Violent, sometimes fatal, clashes between protesters and law enforcement were happening across America. As Oregon authorities scrambled to keep the peace, Oregon U.S. Attorney Sid Lezak, who had charged and prosecuted Bob for resisting the draft, brokered an agreement among the activists, legionnaires, and law enforcement designed to keep the marches separate. When the war and the draft were over, Bob took pride in having been part of a movement that eventually led toward ending them.

Becoming a legal assistant with Legal Aid, he resumed his education at a community college. He went to work with the National Lawyers Guild, an organization of activist lawyers working within the legal system, and became a law clerk at Lindsay Hart, a Portland firm that supported politically and socially active lawyers.

“One day I decided that what the world really needed was another white, male, Jewish lawyer,” Bob said with his inveterate sense of humor.

After completing his undergraduate degree at Portland State University, he earned his JD from Lewis and Clark Law School and passed the bar exam in 1983. When he was admitted to practice in federal court the next year, Judge Gus Solomon presided over the occasion.

During his first year of law school, Bob met Karen Erde, a Portland physician. They married and had three children, Josh, Theo, and Nate Erde-Wollheim. Bob and Karen divorced in 2010, but remained close. Karen and their children survive Bob, as does attorney and mystery writer Val Bruech, whose companionship Bob enjoyed late in life.

Bob focused his law practice on advocacy for people pursuing workers’ compensation, personal injury, and Social Security disability claims. Believing Oregon’s prosperity was built “largely on the backs of working people,” he wanted to ensure their claims for benefits were heard. In addition to community service, he did pro bono work and was a board member of the AFL-CIO Labor’s Community Services Agency and Multnomah County Legal Aid Services. He supported the Willamette Valley Law Project (PCUN), an affiliate of Oregon’s largest Latino union, and the Campaign for Equal Justice, which champions access to justice for low-income Oregonians. Bob participated in many organizations and programs designed to increase the diversity of the Oregon bench and bar.

After years of private practice and community activism, in 1998 Bob was appointed by Governor John Kitzhaber to the Oregon State Court of Appeals. He won election later that year and reelection in 2004 and 2010.

At Bob’s retirement in 2014, Rick Haselton, then chief judge of the Court of Appeals, praised Bob’s opinions (there were more than 500), saying, “Because of Bob’s inimitable eloquence and penchant for plain speaking, many have been memorable in ways that so few of our pathologically impersonal renderings ever are.” Haselton marveled at the high rate of cases in which the Oregon Supreme Court agreed with Bob’s dissents and reversed the appellate court. He deemed Bob “the great, generous, humane heart of the Oregon Court of Appeals,” for whom “it has always, always been about people.” 

The Willamette Valley Law Project honored him in 1998, declaring, “We consider Bob a ‘People’s Judge,’ demonstrated by his tireless advocacy for workers, including farm workers. We know and trust that workers’ voices will be heard across Oregon’s judiciary because Bob will insist on it.” In 2007 Bob was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award for community contributions and dedicated service during the Keep Alive the Dream tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Li Re, former chair of the Oregon Minority Lawyers Association, praised Bob’s consistent and unconditional support of law students and lawyers from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds. “When he was invited, he showed up with no agenda of his own,” Re said. “He mentored us. He hired us. He lifted us up.”

Bob was our awesomely accomplished, brave, cherished forever friend. We mourn his passing and celebrate his life. —Contributed by Patricia Mapps ’70.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2020

comments powered by Disqus