Corporation Counsel/City Attorney

1875 Charter

The Charter of 1875 provided for the election of a City Attorney by the Common Council to serve at its pleasure.

D. P. Jenkins
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Cornelius H. Hanford
William White
William H. White
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Richard Osborn
Ike Hall
Ike M. Hall

McGilvra1877 - City Attorney John Jay McGilvra

John McGilvra was the first attorney to live in Seattle, the second appointed City Attorney, as well as a real estate developer, railroad builder, and longtime foe of the railway giant Northern Pacific. In addition to his activities in Seattle, he served a term in the territorial legislature and spent time in Washington D. C., where he lobbied on behalf of the Washington territory against federal land grants to the railroads, which prevented settlers from accessing land.

As one of only a few attorneys in Seattle, McGilvra appeared as counsel for one of the two sides of nearly every case heard in Seattle. He was so familiar to other attorneys in the area that he was known as the father of the Seattle bar, and his close associations with future civic leaders such as Thomas Burke and Orange Jacobs meant that his influence in city affairs continued long after his short term as City Attorney.

Appointed to the post in 1876, McGilvra's biggest case for the City involved a 320-acre parcel of land known as the Maynard Donation, which sat at the heart of what is now downtown Seattle. The donation had a number of claimants, including Northern Pacific Railroad and a number of private citizens. McGilvra secured a favorable ruling from the local land office, but the other claimants appealed to the Secretary of the Interior, who ruled that no person could obtain a title to the eastern half of the donation that lay within city limits. While not an unequivocal victory for the City, this prevented Northern Pacific or a conglomeration of private landowners from securing exclusive title to valuable real estate, and ensured that the Maynard Donation would remain free for development by multiple groups, including the City.

In later life, McGilvra became something of a dean to the Seattle legal profession. His colleague and son-in-law, Thomas Burke, gained fame as the western counsel for Great Northern Railroad, while his protege Orange Jacobs went on to become Seattle's corporation counsel, as well as a noted jurist. After his term, McGilvra continued to champion the City's development. In particular, he oversaw the growth of the Madison Park neighborhood, large parts of which he owned. The cable road he helped finance, now known as Madison Street, remains the only direct route from Madison Park's lakeshore to the downtown waterfront.

1883 Charter

The Charter of 1883 provided that the city attorney be elected by the voters for a one-year term.

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Cornelius H. Hanford
Sam H. Piles
Sam H. Piles
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Fred H. Peterson
R.B. Albertson
R.B. Albertson
L.C. Gilman
L.C. Gilman
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Thomas R. Shepard

Corporation Counsel

The 1890 home rule charter created the position of Corporation Counsel, providing for two-year terms, and maintained the independent office of City Attorney. An amendment in 1892 made the City Attorney an appointee of the Corporation Counsel.

Orange Jacobs 1890-1892 - Orange Jacobs

Orange Jacobs was elected corporation counsel in 1890, becoming the first to be chosen by voters instead of city officials. Born in Geneseo, New York, Jacobs trained as a lawyer in Michigan, and then led a wagon train to the Oregon territory in 1852. In Oregon, Jacobs did a stint as a newspaper publisher while continuing to practice law. He ran in several elections as a Republican, but was repeatedly defeated. In 1859, he moved to Washington Territory.

Once in Washington, Jacobs resumed the practice of law. In 1869, he was appointed to the Washington Supreme Court, where he served for three years before being appointed chief justice. After four years in this position, he was elected as a territorial delegate to the U.S. Congress and served two terms.

Clearly a man of unusual talent, Jacobs assisted John J. McGilvra during the latter's time in Washington, D.C., by providing advice and assistance for McGilvra's attempts to lobby against the railroad interests.

Upon returning to Washington Territory at the expiration of his second congressional term, Jacobs practiced law for two years before he was elected mayor of Seattle in 1880. Later he was a member of the territorial council in 1885 and member of the committee that redrew Seattle's charter in 1889.

Corporation Counsel may seem an odd continuation to a career that included time as a territorial delegate to Congress and chief justice of the territorial Supreme Court, but in 1890 he stood for, and was elected to, that office. A member of the more populist wing of the Republican Party, Jacobs was suspicious of the power wielded by the railroads over Seattle's public policy, and early in his term he became opposed to a city ordinance granting Puget Sound Railroad Co. the right to lay tracks across the new Columbia Street.

The City Council, regretting its earlier ordinance, encouraged Jacobs to pursue a pending lawsuit against the company. Though he opposed the original ordinance, he had doubts about the success of a legal challenge, but agreed to pursue the suit in conjunction with the former legal advisor to the city, Thomas Shepard. The court, to Jacobs' surprise, ruled for the City. However, Puget Sound Railroad Co. continued construction in violation of the court order, and appealed to the territory's supreme court.

The body of which Jacobs had once been chief held for the company, as Jacobs believed it would. Orange Jacobs was now in the unusual position of being personally opposed to the railroad's actions, yet still convinced that they had legal standing. Moreover, as the sitting corporation counsel, he was blamed in the press and in political circles for a loss that he had predicted from the beginning. Perhaps as a result, he was defeated in the next election. He returned to semi-public life in 1896 as a superior court judge and served until retirement in 1900.

George Donworth
George Donworth
William E. Humphrey
William E. Humphrey
W.T. Scott
W.T. Scott
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Mitchell Gilliam
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John K. Brown
Scott Calhoun
Scott Calhoun

James E. Bradford1911-1916 - James E. Bradford

James E. Bradford, one of only two corporation counsels to lose an election in the 20th century, was also one of the Law Department's most politically active leaders. A progressive, rather than a Republican or Democrat, Bradford championed prison reform, opposed business interests and formed a Non-Partisan League to combat what he saw as political corruption among the major parties.

First appointed corporation counsel in 1911 to fill an unexpired term, Bradford was part of a nationwide progressive movement that rejected the domination of politics by the wealthy or politically well-connected. While corporation counsel, he tried unsuccessfully to enforce the minimum wage guaranteed by ordinance in Seattle, but found that organized opposition and intimidation by employers proved too great a stumbling block. In addition to his support for the minimum wage, Bradford also argued forcefully in favor of jail reform. In a 1913 report to the mayor of Seattle, Progressive Party ally George Coterill, Bradford urged the mayor to recognize that alcoholism and drug addiction were medical, rather than legal problems and that they were best addressed by medical professionals.

In addition to these stances, unorthodox for their day, Bradford opposed a charter amendment that would have forced him to seek authorization from the City Council before initiating legal action on behalf of the City. He saw that as an attempt to make his office "a mere puppet of the city council."

Though he succeeded in killing the amendment, Bradford's iconoclastic streak eventually cost him his office. In 1916, he was defeated by Hugh M. Caldwell; he lost a long-shot run for governor the same year. Two years later, he lost a mayoral election as well, after which he returned to private practice.

The Great Depression brought a resurgence of populist feeling and social policy, however, and Bradford was appointed state director of the Federal Housing Authority in 1934. Charged with implementing New Deal provisions in Washington, Bradford was finally given the opportunity to implement the kind of reform he had long supported. His position as director of a federal agency, moreover, made him immune from the business interests that had stymied him during his stint in Seattle government.

He left his post at the FHA in 1938, going back to private practice for good. He remained a practicing attorney for many years, with a reputation as a constitutional lawyer. He retired in 1956. He remains one of the more colorful heads of Seattle's Law Department, unwilling to compromise his convictions even when they earned him enemies in City Hall.

Hugh M. Caldwell
Hugh M. Caldwell

Resigned to go into active military service.

1920 Charter Amendment

A 1920 amendment to the City Charter increased the term of office for the Corporation Counsel to four years.

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Walter F. Meier

Appointed by Council to succeed Caldwell.
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Thomas J.L. Kennedy

Resigned February 21, 1930.

A.C. Van Soelen1930-1963 - A.C. Van Soelen

Appointed after resignation of Kennedy to serve until the next election in which he was elected to fill the unexpired term. Resigned November 1, 1963.

Anton Van Soelen assumed office in 1930, after Corporation Counsel Thomas Kennedy resigned. Before being appointed by the City Council, he worked in the office as a clerk, and then as an assistant corporation counsel. He was subsequently elected unopposed in 1932.

Van Soelen assumed leadership of a department in crisis. City government was slow to respond in any meaningful way to the Great Depression of 1929 that had now led to significant hardship for the population. It was not until 1933 that the department's budget was nearly halved, from $130,000 in 1930 to $76,156.40, due to falling tax revenue. As a result, Van Soelen and his assistants cut their salaries by up to 30 percent rather than shrink the department.

With Franklin D. Roosevelt's election in 1932 and the subsequent inauguration of the New Deal, Seattle began to apply for the various forms of federal aid then available. The Law Department was called upon to provide legal advice for an enormous number of new projects in diverse fields, all of them financed by federal money and requiring a great deal of legal negotiation with the federal government to implement.

The dramatic cut to salaries, as well as the substantial increase in the business of the Law Department, led to what was very nearly a morale crisis among the employees. This was cured by a minor budget increase in 1937, but the continued economic instability as well as the outbreak of the World War II meant that the Law Department could not count on major budget increases for many years. The end of the war brought an increase in public dollars. In 1946 the department was finally placed on firmer financial footing, its budget exceeding $100,000 for the first time since 1931. After prompting from Van Soelen, the City Council raised the salaries authorized for assistant corporation counsels to compete with the private sector and thereby attract better lawyers.

With a larger budget and higher salaries, the Law Department was able to increase its staff, something Van Soelen had long believed necessary. He continued in his post for 18 more years before resigning in 1963, recommending that his senior assistant corporation counsel, A.L. Newbould, succeed him. The department he passed on was one that Van Soelen had largely created; he managed it during the crises of the 1930s, the calamity of World War II and the economic prosperity of the 1950s and early '60s. Though it appears he made no major reforms or policies, his decades of work on behalf of Seattle transformed the City and earned him recognition as Seattle's longest serving corporation counsel.

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A.L. Newbould

Elected by Council to fill Van
Soelen's unexpired term, and
subsequently elected by the voters.
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John P. Harris

Doug Jewett1978-1989 - Douglas Jewett

In 1977, Doug Jewett became the first non-incumbent or incumbent-supported candidate to win an election for City Attorney since James Bradford lost his office to Hugh Caldwell in 1916. Part of a wave of "outsider" candidates elected to city office beginning in the late 1960s, Jewett was critical of what he saw as the tendency of his predecessors to exercise policy judgment independent of the City Council and Mayor's Office, as opposed to providing the best legal advice they could in view of their clients' policy goals. In Jewett's view, this hampered effective policy implementation by the City's political leadership.

Jewett's first task was to reorganize the Law Department according to recommendations made to his predecessor, John P. Harris. The reforms, which broke the Law Department into five divisions based on practice area, were necessary given the increasing complexity and specialization of municipal law. In Jewett's opinion, separating the advisory roles of the Land Use, Advisory and Utilities divisions from the trial-focused work of the Criminal and Litigation divisions would lead lawyers to be involved at an earlier stage of the city's decision-making process. This, in turn, would lead other city departments to make fewer legal errors, saving the city the need to defend as many cases in court.

In 1982, Jewett ran as a Republican against longtime U.S. Sen. Henry M. Jackson. He lost the election by a landslide, and returned to Seattle where he continued serving as City Attorney. In city elections, he was unopposed for leadership of the Law Department, and in 1989, he filed to run for mayor after Charlie Royer's departure. He ran against City Councilmember Norm Rice, losing again.

Jewett's most substantial legacy was the opening of the City Attorney's Office to a wider pool of candidates. Before his election, every previous head of the department during the 20th century had served as an assistant corporation counsel. In the wake of Jewett's tenure, more City Attorneys have been elected from outside the office than within it, and incumbency has proven to be less of a benefit to candidates.

Seattle's City attorney is now a notable public figure in city life, involved in the City's decision-making to a degree unheard of before Jewett took office. This is largely due to the structural reforms of 1977, which encouraged the department lawyers to provide legal advice on city policies early in the process and gave the department substantial advisory power. Jewett's greater public visibility, fueled in part by his ambition for higher office, made the legacy of this avowedly impartial attorney one that highlighted the department's political, as well as its legal role.

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Mark Sidran

Sidran chose to run for mayor
rather than run for a fourth term.
Ann Davison
Ann Davison
Tom Carr
Tom Carr
Peter Holmes
Peter Holmes

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.