Washington State Legacy Project honors first female Supreme Court Justice

Before Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court 28 years ago, Carolyn Dimmick was already getting used to breaking the glass ceiling in the judiciary in this Washington.

As the state and nation commemorate Women’s History Month, Dimmick, the first woman justice on the state Supreme Court, is being honored with a new oral history and profile. Her story is the fourth in a newly launched series called “The Legacy Project.” These free online publications tell the life lessons and personal histories of some of Washington’s most interesting daughters and sons — and more installments are on the way.

The Legacy Project is part of the Washington State Heritage Center planned for the Capitol Campus in Olympia and online for the children and families of Washington and beyond.

The earlier trio honored by the series included rocker Krist Novoselic, pioneering newswoman Adele Ferguson and the state’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, Charles Z. Smith. All are on the Legacy Project site, along with photos and other materials, at no charge to the users.

The Legacy Project, covering former governors and members of Congress, jurists and other movers and shakers, represents a re-launch of oral histories on a shoestring budget — and done with a sense of urgency since many good stories are being lost with the passage of time. The Legislature is operating a separate program for former legislators.

“We are delighted to bring to the public the inspiring story of Carolyn Dimmick, a true heroine whose long and distinguished legal career is all the more noteworthy because she was constantly taking on the role of bringing more gender balance to our state and federal bench,” says Secretary of State Sam Reed, whose office sponsors the project.

The chief historian and author of the series, John Hughes, says the new oral history and profile describe the blend of sexism and full acceptance that Dimmick encountered. Dimmick was one of only three women in her graduating class in law school and later endured “cutie-pie” blonde lawyer comments as she rose in her profession and on the bench.

“A role model for her own generation and all since, Judge Dimmick had to run a gauntlet of those ‘She’s a woman and a judge — imagine that!’ stereotypes before she became Washington’s first female Supreme Court justice in 1981,” writes Hughes. “Even then, her old boss . . . introduced her after her swearing-in as ‘the prettiest justice on the Supreme Court.'”

Dimmick, now 79 and on senior status on the federal bench, has been a judge since 1965, when she was tapped for the King County District Court, also known as the Northlake Justice Court. Then-Governor Dan Evans appointed her to the King County Superior Court in 1976. In the last days of her administration, the state’s first female governor, Dixy Lee Ray, elevated her to the state high court, in early 1981. In 1985, Dimmick received a White House appointment-for-life to the U.S. District Court in Seattle.

The oral histories and biographical profiles are posted at http://www.secstate.wa.gov/legacyproject .