Jack E. Tanner was born in Tacoma, Washington on January 28, 1919, to parents Ernie and Emma Tanner. An athlete, a veteran and longshoreman, Tanner found his voice as an attorney. A 1955 graduate of the University of Washington’s School of Law, Tanner’s life consistently reflects his judicial philosophy of, “a fair share for all people.”
While the Tacoma President of the NAACP and later the Area President for the Northwest he met renowned scholar Loren Miller from Los Angeles. In the late fifties, while fighting for equal education for all Tacoma public school students, he gained the reputation and thick skin of a rebel. He was quoted as saying that Washington State is the “Mississippi of the North.” His unprecedented legal career included the pro bono representation of Blacks and Native Americans in both Tacoma and Seattle. At that time many White judges devalued the presence of Black lawyers and mocked their pursuit of a legal remedy for injustice. LMBA was formed to remedy this prejudice in the legal profession. In 1968, the same year he helped found the LMBA, Tanner became the first African-American in the state’s history to run for Governor. Ten years later in 1978, he became the first African-American appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
For many Washingtonians, Tanner’s judicial career is remembered for his sense of justice because it embraced all people. In 1980 Tanner ruled that the Walla Walla penitentiary violated “society’s minimum standards of decency, inflict(s) purposeless pain and suffering and, therefore, constitute(s) ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment within the Eighth Amendment’s meanings, and a deprivation of civil rights.” In his 1983 landmark “Comparable Worth” decision, Tanner chastised the state for its use of the legal system to perpetuate sex bias.
As U.S. District Judge, Tanner has remained steadfast in his beliefs, no matter how unpopular. Ask him why and he’ll say because: “Right is just that, right!” In his 82 years, he has been responsible for the recruitment and success of many Black lawyers. Moreover, nothing delights him more than encouraging students of all ages to make something of value out of their lives. After serving 22 years on the federal bench he has vowed to continue to sit in hope that just one more person may be helped by his decisions.
A short list of Judge Tanner’s achievements include being the first African-American lawyer in the Northwest to have been summoned to the White House to discuss the issues of race-relations and the impending crisis (1963); the first to lead a civil rights march to oppose housing discrimination in Kennewick, Washington (1964); the first African-American to serve as the lawyer for the Washington State Democratic Party; and the first African-American (and probably the last longshoreman) to be appointed to sit on the U.S. District Court for both the Eastern and Western Districts of Washington (1978). In addition, Tacoma has formed its own African-American bar association, the Jack E. Tanner Bar Association, in his honor.