The daughters of former Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert L. Harris said their father took an interest in kids inside and outside the courtroom, because he believed support systems would ensure their future success.
Harris, 85, of Vancouver died March 6. His legacy is permanently etched on the community — the Robert L. Harris Juvenile Justice Center at 500 W. 11th St., in downtown Vancouver, was renamed in his honor in 2010. Colleagues told The Columbian at that time that Harris had a long history of focusing on juvenile issues, and the dedication was a no-brainer.
“He really believed in our youth, and that they’re the future of any community. It wasn’t just juvenile justice. For years, he coached youth football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer. I mean, he really dedicated a lot of his community time to sports because he felt that it created such strong values in individuals,” said Marie Sullivan, one of Harris’ daughters.
Harris helped reform the county’s truancy program. He also was instrumental in establishing a Family Law Annex to ease the crunch on the courthouse from divorces and child support matters.
He was born Oct. 3, 1934, in Spokane and grew up in Eastern Oregon in the John Day Valley area. He attended Washington State University and obtained a political science degree in 1955. Next, he went on to the University of Washington Law School and received his law degree in 1958.
Harris worked for a year as a clerk for Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Weaver before heading to Vancouver. He accepted a job at the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, where he served as a deputy prosecutor for 11 years.
Working in private practice over the next approximately five years, Harris spent much of his free time giving back to and shaping the community. Even before leaving the prosecutor’s office in 1970, he started serving as president of St. Joseph Community Hospital, now known as PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.
“He did all the legal work for the hospital that’s out there on (Northeast 87th Street), and then was the first president of their board of trustees. He also did a lot of the legal work for Vancouver Mall. So, you just look at some of the things he did, and they had dramatic effects on Clark County. I’m amazed at the things he did as an attorney,” Sullivan said.
At the same time, Harris was coaching for Catholic Youth Organization football and basketball, Little League baseball, Babe Ruth baseball, and girls’ softball and basketball.
“He liked helping people. He wanted kids to be successful. I remember one woman telling me later in her life that he encouraged her to get involved in sports, because he sensed she needed structure, a support system,” Harris’ daughter Joanna Butcher said.
Former Clark County Superior Court Judge James Rulli said he met Harris in 1976 when he was a young attorney. He recalled when Harris was coaching girls basketball at St. Joseph Catholic School. Rulli was coaching a team of younger girls at the time, and Harris set up a scrimmage between the two teams.
“I think the score ended up being something like 60-5. Bob relished in that victory, because another (law) colleague was also an assistant coach with me. He really rubbed it in, but we became close friends. We traveled to football games in Pullman and Eugene (Ore.) every year,” Rulli said.
Before becoming a judge, Sullivan said her father was entrenched in local politics. In 1970, he ran on the Democratic ticket for the Washington Legislature. He also ran Congressman Mike McCormack’s campaign in Clark County. Harris’ wife, Mary Harris, who died in November 2018, was a Catholic Republican.
“We grew up with interesting conversations around the dining room table,” Sullivan said.
On Sept. 1, 1979, then-Gov. Dixie Lee Ray appointed Harris to the newly created Department 5 of Clark County Superior Court, where he would work for the next three decades. He presided over several of the county’s biggest cases, including the death penalty case of child murderer Westley Allan Dodd.
Despite the case gaining national attention, Harris kept the details of handling that trial, and others, to himself. He was a private person, Butcher said, but it was apparent some cases hit harder emotionally than others.
“It was a burden he carried privately,” Butcher said.
Rulli said Harris was a mentor to him and other judges during his time on the bench. He was the senior judge, and everyone else was younger, Rulli said. Harris advised his colleagues on numerous legal matters and precedents set by case law.
“He was so well read in the law. I think he spent most of his time just being cordial to attorneys who were in front of him,” Rulli said. “He knew the law and what his decision was going to be. He was going to teach us what the law was.”
Harris retired in December 2009 after having served as senior judge and presiding judge for 11 years. At the time of his retirement, he was the longest-serving Superior Court judge in the state. His 30 years of service as a judge was the longest tenure in the history of the county, and one of the longest in state history.
His daughters said Harris would have kept working, but he was fortunate enough to spend his retirement traveling with his wife around the United States and Europe, and visiting his extended family.