It is no accident that tradition, history, and continuity are important to the Hon. Peter I. Breen, Judge of the Second Judicial District, Washoe County, Nevada. As a native Nevadan and the third generation of his namesake and family to be a lawyer and a judge, the law beckoned.
Peter I. Breen was born November 8, 1939, in Reno, but spent his early years in Goldfield. His Goldfield memories run the gamut of using his father’s office and the local judge’s chambers and courtroom as a playground, and fantasizing the ruins of Goldfield as classical structures—the old Elks building magically becoming the ruins of Rome. Judge Breen fondly tells stories of his parents, sisters, friends, and other relatives through his high school years in Tonopah.
He recalls his father, Peter Breen, as a lawyer and judge who was “honest to a fault.” He speaks of his mother teaching him subtle lessons in fairness, as when she told young Peter not to forget that one of his father’s best friends, a businessman from Los Angeles, was Jewish. Moral and ethical guideposts, his parents stood behind him and protected him while allowing his intelligent and energetic character to develop.
Going off to the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) at sixteen was a challenge; having a handful of Tonopah friends at UNR helped the transition. Reno was the big, green city with grass and trees, but it was not an unknown. Breen had spent a lot of childhood time in Reno with his maternal grandparents; his grandfather, Frank Ingram, was another lawyer.
En route to law school at Notre Dame, a romantic interest turned Breen toward local options; he moved to the Bay Area to attend law school at Santa Clara University. He describes going to law school in California during the early 1960s as “the perfect time” before the social upheavals that were on the horizon. Santa Clara Law School was also undergoing a significant restructuring in faculty and academic rigor, and the aspiring lawyer took advantage of both.
Judge Breen’s oral history is chock-full of stories of his return to Reno and the beginning of his legal career. Preeminent is his professional and personal relationship with Reno attorney Ernest Brown who, after his father, was an early mentor. Sadly, Ernest Brown died a short one-and-a-half years later. Judge Breen’s stories of practicing law in Reno during the 1960s and early 1970s are varied but governed by the simple credo of being “a person of your word.”
Breen was just 34 years old when he was appointed by Governor Mike O’Callaghan in 1973 to a new judicial seat in Washoe County. He quickly acknowledges the benefits of growing up around lawyers and judges, and the generous advice many older, established lawyers gave him in the early years on the bench.
While relating stories and cases both of human interest and complex and convoluted corporate interests, Judge Breen reflects extensively on his judicial philosophy—a philosophy born from ideals that all people are “entitled to be treated with respect and dignity.”
Judge Breen’s oral history reveals a legal and judicial career founded in honesty and integrity. He is also an innovator and a major influence in establishing the first of Nevada’s specialty courts: the Washoe County Adult Drug Court; the Diversion Court for criminal offenders whose crimes are attributable to drug addiction or alcoholism; and the first Mental Health Court in Nevada. He is proud to have been a part of the first Probate Court in Washoe County, but quickly credits its existence to Ms. Pam Gullihur, an able non- attorney staff member.
Close to Judge Breen’s heart and legacy is his part in the restoration of the historic Washoe County Courthouse. Without his dedication, energy, and organizational skills, the large undertaking would not have been possible. He deeply believes that the traditional courtroom underscores the proposition that “as a society we believe in the rule of law and a sense of a permanence and reverence for the law.”
For readers who are interested in examining the unaltered records, copies of the recorded interviews are available in the Special Collections department of the UNR Library.
Susan Imswiler conducted oral history interviews with Judge Peter I. Breen during August and September 2003 in his chambers at the Washoe County Courthouse, Reno, Nevada, as part of 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 Susan Imswiler, who interviewed Judge Breen.
Interviewee: Peter I. Breen
Interviewer: Susan Imswiler
UNOHP Catalog #223
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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