by Justice William W. Bedsworth
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times;
~ Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1
Some Shakespeare scholars speculate this famous soliloquy about a deceased court jester was an admiring reference to Richard Tarlton, Elizabeth I’s favorite clown and therefore a big star in the generation before Shakespeare’s. He comes to mind today because I’m writing about a court jester who was a big star from the generation before mine: The Honorable Kenneth Williams. Kenny had been Orange County’s District Attorney a decade or so before I came here. He loved that job. And he fit the role like someone chosen by Central Casting.
The late fifties and early sixties were a different time and Orange County was not yet a metropolis. The San Diego Freeway did not extend south of Beach Blvd., the District Attorney’s office consisted of three score men and one woman,1 and driving under the influence2 was regarded as a faux pas as much as a crime.
The legal community was still a good ole boys’ network and Kenny Williams was a good ole boy. A big man, well-over six feet and solid as a handball court, he liked good whiskey, better cigars, and was never far from a laugh. He liked to strap on a sidearm and go out with the police to serve a search warrant.
It was possible to recognize character flaws in Ken Williams, but it was impossible not to like him. He was smart—the previous D.A. chose him to be his successor because he was “the best lawyer in the office”3—but his heart was always on speed dial, and we loved him for that more than anything else.
Kenny Williams never handled a “case.” He handled people’s lives, and he knew it. He was a man who understood human frailty and second chances, an indispensable trait in both judges and prosecutors.
With that background, I will now recount for you the story of how Ken Williams ceased being the D.A. and became a Superior Court judge. I do not vouch for its accuracy; I have no personal knowledge of the events, which took place fifteen years before I met him. I will tell you the story as he told it to me.
Straight and simple, Ken said he loved being the D.A. and would have stayed in that job forever. “But I got caught in the wrong bedroom one night and her husband shot me in the ass as I was going out the second-story window.”
There are probably as many versions of that story as there are tellers of it. The one I heard more often was that the jealous husband missed. And there is a difference of opinion about whether it was a first- or second-story window (Ken said second), but that’s the one I got from Ken on the one occasion he deigned to tell me about it.
I can still see his face as he hesitated before carefully choosing the words “the wrong bedroom.”4 And what there is no dispute about is that he was caught by a jealous husband in a bedroom not his own.
“Well,” Ken said, “I had an election coming up and there was no way I could get re-elected with a scandal in the papers—not in Orange County. So I called the governor and I said, ‘Make me a judge. Then I won’t have to go before the voters for twenty-one months. By then this will have all blown over and I can get re-elected to a judgeship.’”
Presto change-o, District Attorney Kenneth Williams became Superior Court Judge Kenneth Williams. That’s how he told it.
And that’s who he was when I first encountered him in the early seventies. I ventured into his courtroom for a Friday morning law and motion matter and was immediately gestured into his chambers by his clerk. There I found a dozen attorneys, some sitting, some standing, all laughing. Kenny Williams was holding court.
Kenny’s chambers on a Friday morning was the best show in town. If you were smart, you got there early so you could sit; the standees’ heads were enveloped in cigar smoke from the stogies Kenny puffed on all day. And if you weren’t sure which chambers was his, you could just listen for the laughter.
Laughter is not a common thing in the back hallways of a courthouse. And laughter of an audience, the laughter of five, ten, fifteen people, is even rarer. But it was common behind Department 24.
Kenny summed it up easily and wisely, “You people do battle all day, every day; but I need you to be cooperative in here to keep my calendar moving. I need you to put down your weapons and talk. We get more done at the peace talks than we do on the battlefield.”
And the peace talks, held in chambers, were always jovial and funny. Until he explained it to me, I didn’t realize there was method behind Kenny’s madness. He got us all in there, laughing and joking about our families, our teams, our cases . . . and then, while we still had smiles on our faces and were laughing about our adversary’s kids or our team’s ineptitude, he would shift gears and move into the business of settlement so seamlessly we often didn’t realize what had just happened.
“You know,” he’d say after someone had recited an anecdote, “that just demonstrates how unpredictable life is. Take Mr. Riddet’s client, Mr. Peterson here. He’s charged with manslaughter because he got all excited after that fight with his wife, and was driving too fast, and all of a sudden, the light’s changed and he didn’t see it . . . .”
And with that segue, Kenny Williams would glide into his pitch for leniency for Jim Riddet’s client. And the deputy D.A. would frantically try to stop grinning and put on his “plead to the number” game face. Usually unsuccessfully. Judge Williams always took more plea bargains than any other judge in the courthouse.
Which leads to my favorite story about him.5 This one I was there for. Or at least I had been there. As was my wont, I had gone to Kenny’s court first, checked in, and then gone down the hall to handle a hearing. So for me, it was like looking in my rearview mirror and seeing a traffic collision. A big one.
One of Kenny’s favorite jokes was about bribery.6 Sometimes, when he couldn’t get the parties together on a plea bargain because one or the other was, in his opinion, being unreasonable, he’d end the discussion by saying. “Mr. Attorney, you’d have to put so many hundred dollar bills under my blotter to get that deal that it would tip over my coffee cup.” We’d all laugh, and he’d move on to the next case.
I’d actually heard him say it that morning.
When I finished my hearing, I went back to Department 24 but Ken had not yet taken the bench. He was very late and my first thought was to go back to chambers to see what was going on. But his clerk stopped me, “The door’s closed.”
That was damn near unique. Judge Williams’ door was never closed. If pressed, I couldn’t have been sure he had a door. He could never get enough people through the door to suit him; he’d never want to shut them out.
It was 11:00 a.m. before he took the bench, and we were all aghast when we saw him. He was pale. He was crestfallen. He looked like a man whose dog had just died. By now there were thirty of us in the courtroom waiting to find out what had brought about this change in Yorick, and we were very concerned.
“The PJ tells me I have to transfer all of this morning’s cases to other courts,” he said. “Apparently somebody took it seriously when I joked about putting money under my blotter. I just found $500 there, and the PJ says since we don’t know who put it there, we have to transfer all my cases to other judges.”
Then came the moment that epitomized for all of us the wit of one of the finest judges—and finest men—our bench has ever known. Kenny mustered up a smile—it was the first time I’d ever seen him struggle to smile—and said, “I suggested we just have each of you write me a check for $500 and call it even, but the PJ says we can’t do that.”
We didn’t applaud, but we should have.
The “poor” in the phrase “poor Yorick” is an Elizabethan usage. In the vernacular of the time, something was “poor” if it was unfinished or ended too soon. Shakespeare is lamenting Yorick’s early death.
Kenny Williams, my favorite court jester, died at 91. I lament his early death.
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 email@example.com.