Idaho lawyer who won landmark case dies at 85 – Derr’s work advanced gender equality

By John Miller

BOISE (AP) – Allen Derr, an Idaho lawyer who won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling to bolster anti-discrimination protections for women, died June 10 in Boise. He was 85.

Derr, a longtime and highly valued board member of the Idaho Press Club, grew up in North Idaho, graduated from Clark Fork High School in 1947, and then earned bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Idaho.

On Nov. 22, 1971, the Supreme Court justices issued their Reed vs. Reed decision, holding states cannot discriminate against people because of their gender. It marked a departure from the era when courts often excluded women from full participation in important civil affairs.

Derr’s client, Sally Reed, a woman challenging her estranged husband over which of them should be appointed to oversee their son’s estate following his suicide, was fighting to overturn an Idaho court’s decision based on an 1864 Idaho law: If more than one person claimed to be equally entitled to be trustee, “males must be preferred to females.”

Characteristically humble, Derr in 2011 described his role in the case as nothing extraordinary.

“I was just doing my job,” he said, on the 40th anniversary of the decision when he was honored at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., alongside the lawyer who wrote Reed’s legal brief: current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The decision in Reed v. Reed has been celebrated in the 2001 book by historians Alan Brinkley and James McPherson, “Days of Destiny,” as among a handful of uncelebrated events that nonetheless changed the course of history.

Derr practiced law until recently, though his body was slowed by age and a diagnosis of leukemia.

He was a founding member of the Idaho Press Club and long served on its board of directors.

Though he ran unsuccessfully in the 1960s for the Idaho Legislature, Derr credited his long-standing personal ties to the Idaho Capitol with inspiring his legal career.

His father, Alfred M. Derr, served in the state Senate and ran for governor. His mother, Hattie Derr, was appointed Idaho’s first female senator in1937, to fill in for his father during a bout of appendicitis. Allen Derr served as a legislative page in 1941.

As a youngster, he also wasn’t above a little good-natured mischief. With his two brothers and sister, he once raced on metal-wheeled skates through the marble halls of the Capitol, a boisterous display of childhood joy not overlooked by building security.

“Oh, my God, was that fun,” Derr recalled in 2011. “The noise we created. We got chased out.”

John Miller is a Boise-based reporter for the Associated Press, and a former board member of the Idaho Press Club. This article was  first published by the AP.

Obituary: Allen Derr, 1928—2013

Few can say they changed the world. Even fewer can say they changed the world for the better, but Allen Derr can and did.

Allen passed away on June 10, 2013 with his wife, Judy Peavey-Derr, sister Jane Betts, and close friends Jesse and Harriet Walters, by his bedside. He was born in Sandpoint, Idaho, on April 5, 1928 as the first son and second child of Alfred Morley Derr and Hattie Catherine Allen Derr of Clark Fork, Idaho.

A small man in stature, but big in thought, deed, and spirit, Allen fought for justice and peoples’ rights from an early age. The first was leveling the playing field for his younger brother, Jack, who often told the story about getting into fights with classmates and having Allen finish the fight for him. His older sister, Beverly (Bev) recalls the day when he had had enough of her antics and turned the tables on her; she never got the upper hand again. Jane, the last sibling, and complete surprise to Allen who was 17 and out of the country at her birth, was always protected by her big brother.

Allen’s father, a five-term senator from Bonner County and Democratic nominee for Governor of Idaho in 1958, brought the family to Boise for the session each year. Too often the Derr farm kids received unwanted attention from authorities and others for various acts such as roller skating in the capitol or staging fights at Hotel Boise where crowds would gather and throw money which was later used for ice cream.

As Allen’s interest in the legislative process grew so did his desire to become a page. Eventually he served with his soon to be life-long good friend, Lou Cosho. Lou, prior to his own passing, sent Allen a clipping of an article and picture he had saved for years regarding Allen’s killing of a bear at the age of 12 on their ranch in Clark Fork. No small feat for a young boy, but Allen told the story of that day’s events as if it was nothing at all.

At age 16 Allen wanted to join the WWII effort. His parents resisted and promised him if he felt the same way at 17 they would grant their permission. He did and they did. He joined the Marine Corps (semper fi) and was sent to China in 1945. He returned to Idaho and graduated from high school in his dress uniform. He reminisced about his time in the Marines saying he had “been scheduled to be fodder on the beaches, but major events outside of his control changed his fate.” To the end, always faithful, he approached fellow marines to pay respect to them for their commitment to duty. A few years later after his high school graduation he would sign up with the Air Force to serve in the Korean War.

He was accepted at several colleges, including Stanford and Harvard, but chose the University of Idaho. He majored in Journalism, pledged the TKE fraternity, served as the editor of The Argonaut and was involved in many of the campus traditional hi-jinx including but not limited to the WSU cougar, and TKE bell. Allen and his friends on several occasions traveled to Clark Fork from Moscow for the weekend, unannounced, expecting food and a place to sleep. Hattie, his mother and Idaho’s first female state senator, was always prepared with a warm home-cooked meal and plenty of laughter. With all of his extra activities he still managed to graduate with honors in 1951 and received many awards for his writing.

Upon graduation Allen worked as the editor for the TKE National Magazine in New Augusta, Indiana. After four years he decided to become a lawyer. He said when asked about this career change, “I went astray.”

During these years Allen met and married Miriam E. Ross Larson, started law school, was a correspondent for the Lewiston Tribune, Spokane Chronicle, and Spokesman Review. For one year he was a reporter and assistant sports editor for the Lewiston Tribune and no doubt it was during this time he developed his life-long love for the Yankees. In addition to going to law school Allen and Miriam were Proctor and Hostess at Upham Hall surviving many pranks by Tom Kerr, a resident of Upham Hall at the time and former Valley County Commissioner, now retired.

His first job upon graduating from law school in 1959 was as Assistant Attorney General for the State of Idaho with the bar number of “911″. One year later he opened his private practice, eventually practicing with brothers Jim and Jesse Walters.

Divorced, he met and married Helen Evans. They were married for 28 years when she passed in 1992. It was during these years that Allen argued the Reed vs. Reed case, the first successful sex discrimination case in the history of our country in the U.S. Supreme Court, authored articles on law, journalism, and courtroom photography, was a speaker and lecturer, Master of Ceremonies, and radio and television panelist and past interviewee. In 1967 he became one of the Founders of the Idaho Trial Lawyers’ Association, was a long time Director of the Idaho Press Club, and was selected by the Idaho Statesman for their “Portrait of a Distinguished Citizen” award.

In 1993 Allen, a long-time Democrat and Past State President of the Young Democratic Club of Idaho whose grandfather had also served in the Idaho Legislature as a Democrat, married Judy Peavey, a long-time Republican, precinct committee person, and with strong family ties to the Republican party. It was the equivalent marriage in Idaho to that of James Carville and Mary Matalin. It seemed odd to some people but it was perfect for them. A discussion between them of current events took on a different perspective every morning and night during the news broadcasts. They did a routine one Friday several years ago for their Boise Exchange Club describing how they each read the morning paper and discussed the events of the day with one another.

They were fortunate to travel and fulfill many of their bucket list dreams, visiting many foreign countries, even retracing Allen’s journey throughout China and Asia when he was a Marine. Many of their travels were usually in the company of good friends Ann and Joe Vollmer. Allen managed to find the will to travel one last time to Alaska at Christmas to see the grandsons and ingrain upon them as he did to all of the grandchildren the importance of saying “Cheers” when taking a drink, and the annual trip to Hawaii in February with Ann and Joe.

His real determination and perseverance was recognized when fishing the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska in 2009. At age 81, he hiked into the fishing hole, sat in the river in a lawn chair so he didn’t get swept away by the current, and although cold and shivering, landed a sockeye salmon (This was his first salmon caught on a fishing pole, although he had lassoed one as a child).

A year ago during a birthday celebration of a close friend at the Adrian Social Club, Allen was encouraged to sit in as the drummer on a set for a group playing that evening. It had been years since he had played the drums, but at the conclusion of his performance he commented, “Boy, that brought back some fond memories!” He was referring to the days when he and his parents would travel to Noxon, Mont. where Allen would play the drums while his mother played the piano in a local establishment. They weren’t professional because they didn’t receive any “cash” payment.

Over the years he would also regale his laughing dinner guests with his routine of his old and yet still funny jokes used when he performed for audiences during his TKE National Magazine days, playing his harmonica and reciting poems from memory from years ago.

One of his favorite places to relax was on his boat, a 26-foot fiberfoam, Baja, with a flying bridge on Payette Lake in McCall. When it came time to part with his prized possession he gave it to his son, David, knowing it would be used and enjoyed by him and the granddaughters.

The ACLU recognized him in 2002 with the Idaho Freedom Award, the Idaho State Bar honored him with the Professionalism Award in 2002, the University of Idaho bestowed upon him the Alumni Association Hall of Fame award in 2005, and he was featured, along with his client, Sally Reed, in the book DAYS OF DESTINY CROSSROADS IN AMERICAN HISTORY in which America’s greatest historians examined thirty-one uncelebrated days that changed the course of history. The chapter examines the Reed vs. Reed case 92 S.Ct.251 (1971) in which the U.S. Supreme Court, for the first time in its history, declared a state law discriminating against women violative of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

In 2011, Allen was honored at the annual Idaho Press Club awards banquet for his many years of service to the club, and presented with a plaque and a lifetime membership in the club. The plaque said, “ALLEN DERR, In honor of his extensive and continuing service, is hereby declared a LIFETIME MEMBER, Idaho Press Club, May 7, 2011.” His response: “Does this mean I don’t have to pay dues any more?”

Allen will be remembered by friends, family, and associates as being one of the most kind, gentle, gracious, and caring men to grace our presence. That alone would be enough to claim a life well lived but he has also left a major legacy for women and their families.

And for the Press Club, he left a legacy of standing up for open records and meetings, frequently serving as our attorney over the years in important and precedent-setting cases, serving as our open government lobbyist in the Idaho Legislature and an active member of our First Amendment Committee, always promptly and thoroughly answering questions from reporters facing access problems, and serving for many decades – until his death – as a valued and active member of the Idaho Press Club board.

He is survived by his wife, Judy Peavey-Derr; children, Sandra Delanoy (Russell), David Larson; Brian Peavey (Elisa), Jennifer Joanis (Lance); sisters, Beverly Shields and Jane Betts (Bill); brother, John Derr (Dotty); grandchildren, Amanda Larson, Alyssa Larson, Taylor Peavey, Bella Peavey, Emi Peavey, Gabriel Joanis, Jacob Joanis; sister-in-law, Betty Derr; and numerous nieces, nephews, and cousins. He was preceded in death by his parents, sister, brother and former law partner, Jim, little sister, Marietta, and wife, Helen.

While Allen was a Vandal until his death, he did cheer for and held season tickets for years to the BSU Broncos football games. His final request was he hoped friends and family would put aside the rivalry just this once and support his favorite program at the University Of Idaho College Of Law (for “pro bono program”). Address: P.O. Box 442321, Moscow, ID 83844-2321. He believed with all of his heart that more young people studying law needed to understand that it isn’t always about making money; sometimes you just have to do the right thing for the sake of justice and your client.

A celebration memorial will be held at the Barber Park Event Center Wednesday, July 31, 2013 from 7 – 9:30 PM. Arrangements are by Summers Funeral Homes, Boise Chapel. Memories and condolences may be shared with the family on Allen’s memorial webpage at