Bruce R. Thompson

Born July 31, 1911, Bruce R. Thompson was a native Nevada son. His father taught Latin, Greek, and history at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR); his mother was a homemaker. Judge Thompson describes the family home on Reno’s Riverside Drive as one acre on the Truckee River with cows, chickens, and a large vegetable garden. He recalls milking the cows, weeding the garden, and serving as a marriage witness for a minister neighbor’s wedding business.

In 1932, Thompson graduated from UNR (then the University of Nevada) with a degree in philosophy and English. In college, he joined the staff of the school paper and the debate team. His senior thesis—“The Philosophy of Law and Rights”—gave a nod to the career path he would take.

Thompson’s memories bounce from family car trips, hunting, and fly-fishing with his father, to a variety of jobs through college. He remembers not being particularly adept at team sports but enjoying tennis, horseback riding, hunting, and square and folk dancing.

When he “knocked on the door” of Stanford Law School, he was admitted. Judge Thompson recalls favorite professors and taking the 1936 Nevada Bar Examination that, in those days, lasted five or six days. He practiced law with George Springmeyer until his appointment as an assistant U.S. attorney, later resigning when he was passed over for appointment to the top job. Judge Thompson has a keen memory for stories during his years of law practice and prosecuting at the U.S. attorney’s office.

Appointed to the Nevada federal district court in 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, Judge Thompson served until his death in 1992. With nearly thirty years on the bench, he shares many stories and opinions about the courts, procedure, administration, judges, lawyers, and law clerks. Judge Thompson traveled widely throughout the Ninth Circuit sitting at the district court and on appellate panels; he was also active in the Federal District Judges Association.

When asked about his judicial philosophy, Judge Thompson said he was “a strong believer in judicial precedent.” As to judicial activism, he admits he was a “child of the past,” explaining that there are situations where “I am sure I decided the way I decided because of experiences I have had.”

Judge Thompson’s life was a balance of work and family. A long list of family and friends, and Nevada’s federal and state judiciary attended a memorial service to Judge Thompson at the National Judicial College.* The sentiments expressed that day are evident in his oral history as a husband, father, lawyer, and judge who was an endearing and respected Nevada son.

Jay Sourwine conducted the oral history interview with the Honorable Bruce R. Thompson on February 10, 1988 in Thompson’s chambers in Reno, Nevada. The interview was later incorporated into the Nevada Legal Oral History Project, a joint effort of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society (NJCHS), the Nevada Judicial Historical Society (NJHS), and the UNOHP. Begun in 2001, the project was intended to record the life stories of leading members of Nevada’s legal profession and to educate the public about law and the courts by making those stories widely available through various media.

Members of the boards of NJHS and NJCHS compiled and vetted lists of potential narrators, ultimately selecting representatives from both the state and federal benches and bars. The UNOHP, under the direction of Tom King and his successor Mary Larson, recommended interviewers, most of whom were professional oral historians, and donated equipment and transcription services. Brad Williams, of NJCHS, coordinated the project from its inception. Susan Southwick, of NJHS, oversaw that group’s participation. Patricia Cooper-Smith completed the copyediting and introductions. Alicia Barber, Director of the UNOHP since 2009, supervised the project’s final publication and dissemination. The project was made possible by a generous challenge grant from the John Ben Snow Memorial Trust, with matching funds provided by the U.S. District Court for Nevada Attorney Admissions Fund, the Washoe County Courthouse Preservation Fund, and the Nevada State Bar. Thanks go to Susan Southwick and the Board of Trustees of NJHS, and to Jay Sourwine, who interviewed Judge Thompson.

Interviewee: Bruce R. Thompson
Interviewed: 1988
Published: 2013
Interviewer: Jay Sourwine
UNOHP Catalog #228

This introduction is reprinted with permission from the University of Nevada Oral History Archive, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Nevada, Reno. The full oral history transcript was created for the Nevada Legal Oral History Project. Click here for the full oral history transcript.

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