Judge in Salmon Case Does Not Dine on the Fish, but Believes in the Law
PORTLAND, Ore. The man holding the Bush administration's feet to the fire on restoring Columbia Basin salmon, even if it means breaching some hydroelectric dams, doesn't like to eat the Northwest's signature fish.
U.S. District Judge James Redden finds it too oily, unless it has been barbecued in the Indian fashion on planks around an open fire.
At 78, he doesn't consider himself much of a salmon fisherman, though he cast spinners into the Rogue River in the 1950s.
But in finding the Bush administration's latest attempt to protect cheap hydroelectric power from the demands of restoring the Northwest's depleted salmon runs violated the Endangered Species Act, Redden sees himself as part of a "thin black line" of the judiciary that protects the public from the excesses of government.
Sitting in his downtown office high above the Willamette River, about 10 miles from its confluence with the Columbia, Redden spoke of saving salmon.
"I'm convinced it can be done," he said. "I think it can be done without breaching the dams. And it may mean that someday they will be. Until then you're going to follow the law and save the salmon."
Redden's background has prepared him well for making tough decisions, said Judge Alfred T. Goodwin of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who presided as a trial judge over cases Redden argued as a young lawyer.
Goodwin compared Redden's "impressive" resume to that of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
"She had the common sense that comes from running around the sagebrush chasing calves. Jim has this same kind of common sense. He's worked with people in a great variety of capacities. And he understands the political system and the tension that operates between the power of the government and the rights of the governed."
Redden also has his detractors. James Buchal, a Portland lawyer representing irrigators who favor keeping the dams, has sought Redden's removal from the case, arguing he has been biased on behalf of salmon. Redden has not allowed the irrigators to intervene.
"The practical effect of Judge Redden's intervention has been to elevate a political process over a quasi-scientific one," Buchal said.
Redden was born in Springfield, Mass., the son of a dentist, and grew up during the Depression. Before finishing high school, he joined the Army and served as a hospital medic in the post-World War II occupation of Japan. On the train to Fukuoka on the southernmost island, he saw city after city -- including Hiroshima -- flattened by bombing.
"It was amazing, to see what people have lived through and survived," he said.
He met his wife, Joan, after returning home, then went to Boston University on the GI Bill, studying business. A Red Sox fan since he was 8, he still starts his day checking the Red Sox coverage via the Internet, and a photo of Fenway Park holds a place of honor in his Portland office.
When he graduated from law school at Boston College in 1954, a professor suggested he head West, where he had a better chance of finding a job. Without ever having seen Oregon, he took his young family to Portland. He had to move 300 miles south to Medford to find a job as a lawyer. One son grew up to be a newspaper man, the other a public defender.
As a favor to a friend desperate to put up Democratic candidates, Redden ran for the Legislature in 1962 and was elected. He served three terms, rising to minority leader, and played a key role in passage of a law guaranteeing public access to Oregon's beaches. He was later elected state treasurer, ran unsuccessfully for governor, and was attorney general when President Carter named him a federal judge in 1980.
"We do what we take an oath to do, and that's to follow the law," said Redden. "They say there's a thin blue line that protects the public from the criminals. There's also a thin black line that separates and protects the public from the state. That's what the Constitution is really all about -- trying to keep that balance going when it's such an inconvenience for the political branch."
Politics is the core of the battle over dams and salmon. Bush promised that none of the four lower Snake River dams would be breached, but conservation groups, Indian tribes and fishermen argue that is the only way to save imperiled Snake River runs.
In 2000, a federal agency, NOAA Fisheries, conceded that might be necessary, but in 2004 the agency came up with a plan eliminating any prospects for their removal.
The plan, known as a biological opinion, is required under the Endangered Species Act to assure federally owned dams don't jeopardize the survival of the 12 threatened and endangered groups of salmon in the Columbia Basin. Because the dams came before the Endangered Species Act, it argued, only their operation was open to modification; their existence could not be threatened.
Last May, Redden rejected the plan, the third straight he has found wanting, going back to the Clinton administration.
"You've got to realize and do realize that the dams are the most harmful," of all the factors affecting salmon -- the so-called Four Hs of hydro, harvest, hatcheries and habitat, Redden said. "Everything else is secondary. The only hope is to advance everything else.
"It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of money."
The Bush administration is appealing Redden's ruling, disagreeing that the dams must be on the table.
But James Connaughton, chief environmental adviser to the president, has said the administration wants to take the collaborative process Redden initiated to find new ways to help salmon a step further, naming a facilitator. The White House also wants to eliminate fishing that harms listed salmon, and shut down hatcheries that interfere with restoration.
"He has made very clear we should be doing an even better job of looking at all the Hs on the recovery side," Connaughton said.
Politics do not define Redden. He has long been whitewater rafting buddies with U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, a Republican known for rulings unpopular with environmentalists. Another Republican, retired Sen. Mark Hatfield, put Redden's name on the federal courthouse in Medford.
Though he has lamented that the last salmon could die before substantial progress is made toward recovery, Redden remains an optimist. A snapshot on his desk shows the judge's youngest grandson, who is black, and grandnephew, who is white. The caption says, "Hiya Cuz!"
"I wanted to put that up on billboards all over country," said Redden. "Leave the kids alone and they'll be all right."
Source: Associated Press