‘Maximum’ Appreciation

More than 200 people gathered downtown yesterday to dedicate a wing of the federal courthouse at Union Station to the late Judge Jack E. Tanner, who passed away at age 86 on Jan. 10.

A Tacoma native and resident, Tanner graduated from Stadium High School and worked as a longshoreman on the Tacoma waterfront. He earned an undergraduate degree from College of Puget Sound (now the University of Puget Sound), and served in a segregated unit of the Army during World War II. He later earned a law degree from the University of Washington. He was an attorney between 1955 to 1978.

Tanner was best known for his work in the civil rights movement. He was active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and served as Tacoma chapter president, regional vice president, and member of the national Board of Directors during Thurgood Marshall’s tenure.

“Because of Jack, I joined the NAACP,” said Judge John C. Coughenour. “If I had known Jack a lot earlier, maybe I would have been out on the lines.”

Judge Betty Fletcher recalled attending law school with Tanner at a time when there were only two African Americans and three women in the program. It was then that she first witnessed Tanner undeterred spirit.

“When we graduated, no one was eager to hire women or blacks,” said Judge Fletcher. “But he returned to Tacoma with his head high to represent the underserved.”

Judge Tanner, who was nominated by President Carter and confirmed by the Senate in 1978, was the first African American to serve as a federal judge in the Pacific Northwest.

For Judge Franklin D. Burgess, the ceremony was a chance to share colorful and humorous stories from his long career and friendship with Judge Tanner.

One story Judge Burgess recalled involved a defendant who was aware of Tanner’s nickname — ‘Maximum Jack’ — because of the late judge’s reputation for handing out stiff sentences. “‘I understand they call you Maximum Jack,’ said the defendant,” recalled Judge Burgess. “‘I don’t intend to disappoint you,’ replied Jack Tanner.”

Another story: after Judge Tanner delivered a 40-year sentence, one defendant complained, ‘Judge, I don’t know if I can do all that time.’

“Judge Tanner told him, ‘Well then, just do the best you can,’” recalled Judge Burgess.

“This is quite an honor,” said Donetta Gillum, one of Tanner’s daughters. “I think he would say, ‘What is all this fuss about?’ Then he would get to saying, ‘I deserve this.’”