Printed on: June 17, 2013

Idaho Statesman: Derr had a gentle voice, fierce spirit


Mention the name Allen Derr and the first thought that comes to mind is the landmark Reed vs. Reed Supreme Court case 42 years ago that granted women equal rights in administering estate cases. Derr, who died Monday at 85, was a "rainmaker" long before the term became a movie title. The notion that men are more qualified than women to act as administrators for an estate would be laughed out of any court today. But it was a monumental issue in 1971 and Derr was the perfect advocate to lead the charge for Sally Reed, a Boise woman who only wanted to administer the estate of her dead son.

As Derr told the story, "I've always considered I was just doing my job." History offers a different, and more flattering, perspective. The National Women's Law Center recognized that the case paved the way for successful challenges to other discriminatory laws, such as the 1996 court ruling that the exclusion of women from the Virginia Military Institute was unconstitutional. Two years ago, on the 40th anniversary of that unanimous Supreme Court decision, Derr received accolades from Washington, D.C., to the University of Idaho College of Law, where he graduated in 1959.

Few attorneys in history have made a greater impact in the profession. David Leroy, a longtime attorney and former lieutenant governor, offers two perspectives."On one side, there was an old-fashioned graciousness. He was quick with a smile, with an almost Southern gentleman, pleasant demeanor," Leroy said. "On the other side, he was a bulldog as an advocate for his clients, which seems in contrast to his packaging. A good analogy was he had a velvet glove with an iron fist."Jesse Walters, a former Supreme Court Justice and law partner, was with Derr and his wife, Judy, at the time of death. Walters described Derr as "a good mentor and good teacher. He helped me in my formative years as an attorney. I was taught by one of the best."

Don Burnett, the interim president at the University of Idaho and former dean of the College of Law, says Derr was instrumental in establishing a pro bono program at the UI, requiring students to devote a certain number of hours to pro bono work for those without ability to pay for legal services. Though practicing law is a private enterprise, Burnett said, "there also is a public responsibility. This encourages those in the profession to devote time to public service, like Allen Derr."

Derr's mark goes far beyond the legal profession. Tom Grote, publisher of the Star-News of McCall, remembers Derr as a leading advocate of the First Amendment. He was a founding member of the Idaho Press Club and represented several newspaper organizations. He was a founder of the Max Dalton Open Government Award, which started in 1999 and regularly spoke at annual award presentations."When he spoke, it was like a formal setting. It would become very quiet, and people listened because they were listening to a living history," Grote said. "He got it as far as the First Amendment was concerned, and he would not compromise in his defense of First Amendment Rights."These perspectives offer only a snapshot of the measure of respect and admiration for this great man.

This community, and this country, are better places because of Allen Derr and the mark he leaves as an attorney and person will remain for generations to come.