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Otto R. Skopil Jr. dies at 93; judge spent 40 years on federal bench

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Otto R. Skopil Jr., whose 40-year career as a federal judge included historic rulings on California water rights and the right of an Irvine teacher with AIDS to remain in the classroom, died Thursday at his home in Portland, Ore. He was 93.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, on which he had served since 1979, announced his death but gave no cause.

Skopil joined the federal bench in 1972, when President Nixon nominated him to the U.S. District Court in Oregon, and served as the chief U.S. judge in the state from 1976 to 1979, when President Carter appointed him to the appeals court. Skopil retired as a full-time judge in 1986 but continued to write opinions into his 90s.

The 1998 water-rights decision required the federal government to comply with laws protecting endangered salmon and other wildlife when it channels water to Central Valley farmers. The ruling was seen as a major victory for California environmentalists who had battled for years to force the federal government to restore water to the embattled San Joaquin River.

In 1987, Skopil was part of a three-judge panel that ordered the Orange County Department of Education to return an Irvine teacher with AIDS to the classroom. It was the first time that a federal appeals court had ruled that discrimination against victims of the disease was barred under civil rights laws protecting the disabled.

Among his other significant cases were those dealing with the sovereign rights of Native American tribes in regard to water rights, tribal land boundaries and tideland ownership.

Appointed chairman of the National Magistrates Committee in 1979, Skopil was widely regarded as the driving force behind the expansion of the authority of magistrate judges, who were allowed to conduct civil trials with the consent of both parties. They were also allowed to oversee misdemeanor trials if the defendant agreed to it.

"The magistrate system as it now stands is probably one of the most progressive things that has happened in the judiciary since its origin," Skopil told the Oregon State Bar Bulletin in 2007. "It's given the courts an entirely different ability to handle the tremendous volume we have."

Otto Richard Skopil Jr. was born in 1919 in Portland to German immigrants. His father drove a laundry truck.

A basketball player, he attended Willamette University in Salem, Ore., on an athletic scholarship, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1941.

He was inspired to study law by an uncle with a fifth-grade education who lost an eye in a work-related accident and asked his company to compensate by sending him to law school. His uncle later practiced in Salem.

During World War II, Skopil dropped out of Willamette's law school to join the Navy and served as a supply corps officer in Guadalcanal and Washington, D.C. He returned to earn his degree in 1946 and later opened a law firm with a childhood friend.

He is survived by Janet, his wife of 56 years; four children; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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