Federal Judge Owen M. Panner dies at age 94
Senior U.S. District Judge Owen M. Panner died Wednesday night in Medford. He was 94.
Panner spent 38 years on the federal bench after practicing for 30 years as a trial lawyer in Bend.
Until recently, Panner still came to work twice a week at the court in Medford, though he stopped hearing cases in 2015.
He was born July 28, 1924, in Chicago but grew up in Oklahoma. He enrolled at the University of Oklahoma in 1941 but two years later enlisted in the Army, where he reached the rank of lieutenant and commanded troop transports on several Atlantic crossings. After the war, he returned to the university, where he went on to attend law school on a golf scholarship.
Following law school, Panner headed west, looking to settle somewhere near mountains, and ended up in Bend in 1949, according to an oral history Panner gave to the U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society in 2011. He passed the Oregon State Bar the next year and joined practice with another Bend attorney, Duncan McKay. In one of his early cases, he successfully represented property owners who sued the state for losses suffered during a disastrous flood in Mitchell.
In 1955, Panner became the attorney for the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and would continue to represent the tribes for 25 years. He provided legal advice regarding the construction of the tribes’ Kah-Nee-Ta Resort and helped handle its recovery of 79,000 acres of land known then as the McQuinn strip. He also represented Mt. Batchelor Ski Area when it opened.
Former U.S President Jimmy Carter nominated Panner to a seat on the federal bench in 1979 and the U.S. Senate confirmed him in 1980.
As a district judge, he handled several noteworthy cases involving the savings and loan crisis, federal wire taps and one involving the now-infamous ice skater Tonya Harding. In May 1994, he dismissed Harding’s lawsuit against the U.S. Figure Skating Association as moot. Harding already had resigned from the association and pleaded guilty in state court to hindering prosecution in the kneecap attack of rival Nancy Kerrigan by a man hired by her ex-husband. But Panner also found the association’s scheduled date for a disciplinary hearing to bar Harding from the Olympics was unfair and arbitrary. Harding had argued she didn’t have enough time to defend herself.
In 2003, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a Panner ruling that had allocated all of the surface water in the Klamath Basin to the Klamath and Modoc Indian Tribes to sustain their rights to hunt and fish.
Panner served as chief judge for Oregon’s U.S. District Court from 1984 to 1990 and took senior status on July 28, 1992.
At age 81, he moved to Medford and worked out of the federal court there.
U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken, who learned of Panner’s passing as she drove Thursday morning to Medford to hear cases there, said she was shaken because Panner had continued to come to court.
Despite the differences in their age and backgrounds, “He was one of the colleagues I could call on and he was supportive,’’ Aiken said.
“He’s a historic figure in Oregon judicial history. He shared a deep respect for the institution and serving the public in a fair, efficient way,’’ she said. “He had an abiding belief in working to be appropriate in sentencings and give people the opportunity to be better.’’
In his 2011 interview with the court’s historical society, Panner said he was most proud of his role in working to speed up and simplify court proceedings.
“People need to have their problems solved quickly. I think I have a reputation for that,” he said.
Aiken added, “Everybody knew when you got Panner, you were on an expedited calendar.’’
Panner told the historical society that he didn’t have any regrets.
“I always practiced law like a lot of lawyers do, my real goal was to help people solve problems if you try to help people, you’ll have a good career,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate.’’
Dan Philpott, who was a law clerk for Panner from 2013 through 2016, said Panner believed strongly that everyone could be better, “that there was some good in everyone.’’
Panner would regale him with stories of his days as a lawyer for the Warm Springs and would talk for hours about the virtue of Arabian horses, which Panner and his wife bred and trained. The judge’s chambers was decorated with a display of horses and Native American gifts and decorations from the Warm Springs.
Philpott shared one of Panner’s favorite stories: the time he was doing housework and a hired landscaper showed up and told Panner that he probably didn’t remember him but that Panner had sentenced him. The landscaper reminded the judge, “You told me you believed in me and thought I could do better. Nobody had ever said that to me before.’’
“He was a wonderful boss and a wonderful judge,’’ Philpott said, “and we’re all going to miss him.’’
He was married twice and is survived by his second wife and four children.