by Justice William W. Bedsworth
When I decided I wanted to try to snag an appointment to the Court of Appeal, I polled some of my fellow Superior Court judges to find out who the competition was. Having been rejected twice for the municipal court, 1 overconfidence was not my problem, and I thought I should find out if I’d set my sights impossibly high.
One of the first people I talked to was Dick Weatherspoon. Spoon had gotten the Deukmejian muni court appointment I’d coveted, and I didn’t want to go up against him with Pete Wilson in the governor’s office. His conservative credentials were orders of magnitude better than mine.
I still remember the look on his face when I asked if he was going after the opening. “Court of Appeal?!” He looked at me like I’d suddenly begun speaking in tongues. “Beds, if I could quitclaim you my rights to the Court of Appeal, I’d do it right now. Why in the world would you want that job?”
In the weeks to come, I would find out that about 80% of my colleagues at superior court shared that sentiment. They were generally ex-trial lawyers; by and large, governors look for people who have spent enough time in the courtroom to be able to run one. And those trial horses have no desire to leave that paddock for the Court of Appeal.
As another judge put it, “Beds, you’ve got a great job. You get paid for calling balls and strikes, in return for which you get to watch the game for free. Why would you want to leave that and go to the league office to argue about whether the foul lines ought to be moved three degrees?”
That was clearly the consensus. But the other 20% of my colleagues would have killed a blood relative for the chance.
I was unconscionably lucky to get this job, and I’ve never lost sight of that fact. A lot of nice people said very nice things about me, and I try every day to live up to them. This was my dream job, and I’m grateful to have it.
The job is not perfect. But it’s within arm’s reach of perfect.
For one thing, I get to work with terrific people. There’s a lot of intellectual firepower here and a refreshing shortage of ego. Any job where you can’t do anything without one other vote—where every single idea has to convince someone else before you get anywhere—is good for limiting the expansion of your self-importance.
Starting out, I got to work with two of my heroes: Tom Crosby and Dave Sills. They were not only terrific lawyers, they were stellar human beings: Crosby the Lion of the Left, and Sills, who had been Ronald Reagan’s son-in-law and could count the number of times he’d voted for a Democrat on one hand.2
A job that gives you access to debates—both legal and political—between two people so capable of articulating the very best argument possible for their position is a good one. And it’s even better when they’re capable of remaining friendly and respectful—something we see way too little of these days—throughout those debates. If you can’t learn from people like those two, you just can’t learn.
And then there’s the support staff, which is nonpareil. I have benefitted from the work of research attorneys whose legal acumen and unflagging commitment is a daily joy to experience. Unlike our federal colleagues, who benefit from law clerks fresh out of law school with exceptional intellect, great energy, and a store of fresh ideas, California has opted for erudition and experience.
We hire people for career positions, people who’ve been in practice a decade or so and have found that while they love the law, they aren’t crazy about the practice of law. They view our research attorney positions as a way to practice “pure law.”
Look at it like this: In private practice, you do the research and find out the law is a size 8. But your client is a size 12. Now you gotta find some way to squeeze your size 12 client into that size 8. At the Court of Appeal, you just say, “It’s a size 8, Your Honor; knock yourself out.”
The appeal—so to speak—of such opportunity is good enough that some of the best lawyers I’ve ever met have been research attorneys. One of our guys was a name partner in a big Los Angeles firm. He made enough money to buy two houses in Manhattan Beach and retired from firm life to become a research attorney at our court.
He’d been so successful his old firm refused to take his name off the door. He said, “Guys, I’m not there anymore.” They said, “Gibson and Dunn have been dead for decades, but their names are still on that door.” That’s how good he was.
That makes my job a lot easier. As does an assistant who makes Radar O’Reilly look sluggish, and an office big enough to turn into a pickleball court if I ever work up the nerve to leave.
I tell people, “I’ve got the best job in the system. And I don’t mean the legal system, I mean the solar system.”
But, like me, it’s an acquired taste. I had no idea I wanted to be an appellate lawyer until the District Attorney’s Office told me I did.
Once I found out I could make a living writing, it was all I wanted to do. As the great legal scholar Chico Escuela would say, “Appellate law been bery, bery goot to me.”
So why doesn’t everyone want my job? Well, let’s take a look at People v. Anderson, 191 Cal. App. 3d 207 (1987).
This is a case involving the California Pink Bollworm Control Act. In twenty-four years on the Court of Appeal and two nights of serious insobriety, I have never—ever—encountered a pink bollworm. And I intend to live my life so as never to do so. Just reading about them creeps me out.
So it’s good I did not have to decide this case. That little task fell to the Fifth District Court of Appeal. I think I would rather have burning wreckage from a mid-air collision fall to me.
Put yourself, just for a moment, in the position of the three justices assigned to this case. You don’t need to read far. This one wastes no time making you think maybe your job is better than you give it credit for.
Here’s the first sentence: “These 17 consolidated cases . . .” Right away you know you don’t like it. Seventeen consolidated cases. You stack the files in your office, they’re gonna be taller than you are.3
“[I]nvolving 16 individual defendants . . . .” Omigod, one of ‘em’s a recidivist!
“[A]rise from alleged violations of Food and Agriculture Code . . . .” Criminy! When’s the last time you looked at the Food and Agriculture Code? The one in my chambers has probably never been opened. For all I know, it’s been hollowed out and there’s a gun in it.
It gets worse: “and section 5784 and Title 3 of the Administrative Code.” Administrative Code!! Jesus wept, have you looked at that monster?! It’s forty-two loose-leaf binders full of statutory esoterica regulating—so help me—elevators, reupholsterers, lamp adjusters (official),4 heptachlor, herring, swine brucellosis, brake fluid, amateur boxing, jackrabbits, jute, pneumatic nailers, the Petaluma Marsh Wildlife Area, assigned risk automobile insurance, label manufacturers, the breeding of albino reptiles,5 and everything else that ever lurked in the anxiety closet of a California state legislator’s friends and acquaintances.6
And what particular statute are we dealing with? “[S]ection 3595 setting forth mandatory dates for cotton farmers to plow under their cotton stalks.”
“Take me now, Lord. Don’t make me learn this stuff. Let me die a horrible, painful death tomorrow so Justice Knowitall next door gets stuck with this penance. I don’t deserve to have to write this opinion.”7
And that’s just the first sentence. You want more? Here’s a refinement of the issue:
“Where the 1978 revision provided that a plowdown violation constituted a single offense, punishable by a fine determined by the number of acres involved, under the 1984 revision every acre not in compliance constitutes a separately chargeable infraction for the general failure to plow down. (See fn. 1, ante).8 Thus, a one-acre violation would be subject to a $505 fine, plus a penalty assessment of $353.50 for a total of $858.50.”
Wouldn’t you feel deserving of sainthood if you’d read twenty-five cases ranging from Ex Parte Wong You Ting, 106 Cal. 296 (1895),9 through People v. One 1941 Chevrolet Coupe, 37 Cal. 2d 282 (1951), through United States v. Troxler Hosiery Co. Inc., 681 F.2d 934 (4th Cir. 1982), and broken out Bernie Witkin and a sixty-year-old Harvard Law Review article co-authored by Felix Frankfurter in your effort to separate the wheat from the goats10 in this one?
I would, and I am otherwise nowhere near sainthood.
That’s why some of my superior court colleagues look at the job like it involves handling fish for eight hours a day while juggling chainsaws. Or handling pink bollworms while juggling the Administrative Code.
Yeah, pink bollworm violations are the exception rather than the rule, but the rule is no day at the beach. It includes CEQA cases (always tougher to sort out than a trainwreck in a blizzard), SLAPP cases (I’ve yet to do one that didn’t require me to diagram it), and a whole lot of, “Well, that’s not the way I would have done it, but Judge Gazorninplat was there, and I can’t say her resolution of the issue is unreasonable.”
Like I say, an acquired taste. But if, like me, you’ve acquired the taste, it’s the Yellowstone Park of the law: one amazing roadside attraction after another.
There’s no telling how long I’m gonna be here. I chickened out on retirement, and now the state’s probably gonna have to pay to have me hauled away. But you might want to have your résumé ready to go in case the California Pink Bollworm Control Act shows up on my calendar and changes that.
(1) Jerry Brown thought I was way too conservative; George Deukmejian thought I was way too liberal.
(2) And probably have enough fingers left over to go bowling.
(3) And tougher.
(4) I have no idea; figure it out yourself.
(5) Honest. I’m not talented enough to make up something like that. Title 14, section 690.
(6) You think we have too many lawyers? Make law students study the California Administrative Code their first semester. Future bar exams can be administered in a ’74 Volvo. With a proctor for each taker.
(7) Hell, Rasputin didn’t deserve to have to write this opinion.
(8) Not bloody likely.
(9) Eighteen freaking ninety-five!
(10) This seemed like a good opportunity to show off my mastery of farm idiom.
William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. A Criminal Waste of Space won Best Column in California in 2018 from the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA). And look for his latest book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Vandeplas Publishing. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.