October 2011 - David George Sills (March 21, 1938–August 23, 2011)

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

We lost Dave Sills last night. I’ve spent my life writing and editing but I can’t find a way to make that sentence less heartbreaking.

I worked with Dave for 14 years. I probably worked with him because of Dave. I don’t think anyone got to the Fourth District, Division 3 in the last 20 years without Dave Sills’ imprimatur. I certainly hope that’s true; I like thinking he approved of me.

I could never understand why anyone would want to be the Presiding Justice of a court of appeal—or of anything else for that matter. The PJ’s job is no different than the other justices’ except that you have to do all the administrative stuff in addition to the judicial duties. It’s pretty much a matter of, “We have eight people who are going to do this job: seven of them will do the job on horseback; you will do it while carrying a horse.”

Dave had the only decent answer I’ve ever heard for why anyone would be a PJ. He said, “It was the only job they offered me.”

I’ve always treasured that response because I think it’s so typically Dave. There was a simplicity and humility about the man that is difficult to express to people who knew him only as David G. Sills, Presiding Justice of the California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division Three. Hell, it’s hard to express to anyone and do it justice.

He was as kind and generous a man as I’ve ever known. Rooms got warmer and brighter when Dave Sills walked into them. People got better. Problems seemed smaller.

Leadership came naturally to him. Good and decent people have a calming and reassuring effect on others, and Dave was good and decent in spades. So no matter what the problem, no matter how big the crisis, you had the feeling Dave could get you through it.

Which is good, because we needed a ton of leadership to get into the building at Santa Ana and Ross.

When the building was planned, the state was rolling in dough. Why rent on Spurgeon Street (our old courthouse) when you can own on Santa Ana Blvd.? But by the time construction started, the flow of cash had dried up and a river of red ink had replaced it. Crews were sent home and work was halted twice in the last six months of construction—once for six weeks. The state was prepared to walk away and finish it in some sweet bye-and-bye when things got better.

Somehow Dave changed their minds. Twice.

I don’t know all the people who had a hand in accomplishing that feat. Between the ones who claim more credit than they’re due and the ones who are satisfied with accomplishment and seek less credit than they deserve, it’s a little hard to tell.

But I know Dave was there, smiling and nodding, agreeing and agreeing, never seeming to contradict, always acknowledging the sound reasoning and good faith of his opponents, and yet somehow moving people from the position they’d started with to the position he wanted them to end at. I suspect they left, as I sometimes did, wondering just how it was I’d walked into the room a Tory and walked out a Whig.

However he did it, the building stands proudly now, a tribute to his political savvy, his Marine tenacity, and his nonpareil persuasive skills.

He was a great consensus builder, but he could also fire off an incendiary dissent. He wrote with style and precision, and he left behind a body of law—over 2,000 opinions in all, including some really spectacular unpublished ones—that would make anyone concerned with his legacy proud beyond measure.

But Dave wasn’t much for legacy. He was too busy living. He had a wife he loved wildly—perhaps the only thing he did with true abandon—and he appreciated how good his life was with her. They spent a lot of time having a good time. And he appreciated a good time.

A first rate marathoner as a young man, he’d put aside his running shoes in favor of golf—which he adored—and oh-dark-thirty walks that strengthened his constitution and cleared his mind. He insisted he did his best thinking on his walks, but those of us who spent the rest of the day with him were hard-pressed to figure out how it could be better than what we saw.

He loved history and politics the way most men love burgers and beer. Books on both overflowed the beautiful bookshelves he’d built in his workshop to line the walls of his study. But if you were up for burgers and beer, he’d be right there with you, talking about the Angels or Tiger Woods, or the fortunes of the Bradley Braves or his beloved Illini.

And if you wanted to talk history or politics, well, an hour spent with Dave was like an hour spent with Doris Kearns Goodwin or George Will. He had the mind of a scholar but he was armored like a tank. Listening to him talk politics was like taking a seminar from Ronald Reagan—a comparison he would have liked, but would have modestly disclaimed.

It was my great pleasure on occasion to sit across a table from Dave and Tom Crosby and listen to them talk politics. It was like listening to Mays and Mantle discuss center field. The Lion of the Left and the Griffin of True Conservatism matching blow for blow, principle for principle—never a harsh word, never a low blow, never a thoughtless cliché, never an unparried thrust. With more time I might have learned something.

But more time is not available. We lost Dave Sills last night.

I’ve lost other friends and I’ll lose more. It’ll hurt every time. But the sense of loss is different this time. There’s an element of apprehension in it.

Dave was a very reassuring presence. When things were going badly, you could look at Dave and be reassured that the good people were still in charge. When you were tempted to cynicism, you could look at Dave and be reassured there was a place for honor and integrity in the world. When you were afflicted with undifferentiated malaise, you could walk into Dave’s office and draw out a few smiles to get you through. As long as Dave Sills was in charge, you knew the helm was tended, the ship was on course.

I’m frankly apprehensive about having to handle this stuff without him. You don’t always need the lighthouse if you know the coast, but it’s comforting to know it’s there. I will miss that comfort.

But I will profit from his example, bask in the light of his smile, and take solace from the last lines of Dave’s favorite song, The Marine Hymn:

If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.
Heaven’s in good hands today.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.

Save the Date:
There will be a memorial service held in honor of Justice Sills on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2011. For more information, please contact the Court of Appeal.