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Monday, July 15, 2024 | Back issues
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9th Circuit Judge Otto Skopil Dead at Age 93

(CN) - Otto Skopil Jr., a 9th Circuit judge who served the federal courts for 40 years, died Thursday night at his home in Portland, Ore. He was 93.

President Richard Nixon nominated Skopil to the bench in 1972. He served as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon from 1976 to 1979, when President Jimmy Carter nominated him to the Court of Appeals.

The 9th Circuit says Skopil took pride in having been nominated by presidents from both political parties.

Skopil assumed senior status in 1986 and had been deciding cases submitted on the briefs as recently as 2011.

"Judge Skopil participated in thousands of cases and authored hundreds of decisions," according to the 9th Circuit. "A number of his opinions dealt with the sovereign rights of local Native American tribes. Notable among those are Quileute Indian Tribe v. Babbitt, 18 F.3d 1456 (9th Cir. 1994), involving tribal sovereign immunity; United States v. Aam, 887 F.2d 190 (9th Cir. 1989), tribal ownership rights in tidelands; Queets Band of Indians v. Washington, 765 F.2d 1399 (9th Cir. 1985), tribal vehicle registration authority; Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians v. Truckee-Carson Irrigation Dist., 649 F.2d 1286 (9th Cir. 1981), tribal water rights; and Sekaquaptewa v. MacDonald, 619 F.2d

801 (9th Cir. 1980), tribal land boundaries.

"His other important decisions included United States v. Morales, 898 F.2d 99 (9th Cir. 1990), regarding judicial review of criminal sentences; Campbell v. Kincheloe, 829 F.2d 1453 (9th Cir. 1987), involving the constitutionality of a state's death penalty statute; Ashelman v. Pope, 793 F.2d 1072 (9th Cir. 1986) (en banc), dealing with the scope of immunity for judges and prosecutors; Palila v. Hawaii, 639 F.2d 495 (9th Cir.1981), involving unlawful 'taking' under the Endangered Species Act; and Kerr v. Screen Extras Guild, Inc., 526 F.2d 67 (9th Cir. 1975), addressing factors justifying an award of attorney's fees."

The court says Skopil helped expand the role of magistrate judges. Chief Justice Warren Burger appointed Skopil to the National Magistrates Committee, which he chaired.

"He is widely regarded as being the driving force behind the Federal Magistrates Act, having helped formulate the legislation and testified before Congress on its behalf," the court said. "The law expanded the authority of magistrate judges to conduct civil trials with the consent of the parties and misdemeanor trials if the defendant waived his right to a trial before a district judge. It also created merit selection panels to assist courts in the appointment of magistrate judges."

Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed Skopil to study the judiciary as chair of the Long Range Planning Committee in 1990.

Upon hearing of Skopil's death, Judge Edward Leavy said his colleague had been "one of the superstars of the legal profession."

Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain said Skopil had been his mentor and friend.

"Judge Skopil was the epitome of the ideal judge from the timbre of his voice to his physical stature and great intellect," O'Scannlain said in a statement.

A Portland native, Skopil earned his bachelor's degree from Willamette University in 1941, having attended the school on an athletic scholarship. He interrupted law school to join the Navy at the outset of World War II and got his degree in 1946.

Skopil spent 26 years in private practice, and once argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Other honors included positions on the Board of Governors of the Oregon State Bar and the Marion County Unethical Conduct Committee.

Skopil is survived by his wife of 56 years, Janet; four children; five grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and others.

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