The following book review by Kenneth C. Burt appeared in Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 38, No.4 (Winter 2007).gus j. solomon: liberal politics, jews, and the federal courts.
By Harry H. Stein (Portland: Oregon Historical Society Press, 2006. xi + 304 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $22.00 £14.95 paper.)
Harry Stein's biography of U.S. District Court Judge Gus J. Solomon provides insight into the life of the Oregon jurist and the state in which he grew up, operated in olitically, and shaped the law and the operation of the federal court sytem.
For those used to thinking of Oregon as part of the Left Coast, with a liberal, environmental and Democrat bias, this book is illuminating in detailing that, during the time of the New Deal, the timber-producing state was dominated by Protestant Republicans. This larger cultural and political environment contributed to Solomon's lifelong indentification with societal underdogs, despite his status as a professional white male.
Born in 1906, Solomon grew up in a "classic first-settlement neighborhood" in Portland where Yiddish-speaking residents lived in proximity to those speaking Italian (p.1). His parents started as peddlers and, Stein tells us, "engendered [in their son] basic values and attitudes, including near-tribal feelings of obligation to Jews and to the weak, oppressed, and suffering" (p.5). This Jewish "otherness" affected his ability to join law firms and social clubs, a snub that he never forgot even when an exception was made for him.
Solomon's association with progressives during the New Deal worried the FBI and complicated his appointment. President Truman asked him pointedly in the Oval Office if he had ever been a Communist. Loyalty, however, proved to be the ultimate trump card. Truman appreciated Solomon's support in the 1948 election at a time when conservative Oregon Democrats backed Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, and left-wing Democrats rallied to Henry A. Wallace.
Stein's description of the changing nature of the law and the court system in Oregon reflects both larger legal trends and state specific situations. Solomon advanced race relations by overseeing the consent decree that advanced Black workers' interests by reforming the hiring practices associated with the longshoremen's union in Portland. Later in Burton v. Cascade School District, he awarded back pay to a lesbian teacher fired by her rural school district for her sexual orientation.
This well-researched and accessible book provides a fitting tribute to the small town lawyer who became a giant within the Oregon court system. Scholars interested in the law, Oregon history, civil rights, and Jewish studies will find it particularly interesting.