OCBA Mourns the Passing of Justice Richard D. Fybel (Ret.)

Message from Presiding Justice Kathleen O’Leary:

It is with a very heavy heart that I share with you the news of the death of Justice Richard D. Fybel (Ret.). Justice Fybel passed peacefully from this world this morning at 2AM. after a courageous battle with an aggressive form of cancer. He was surrounded by his family when he passed. Justice Fybel was a loving husband, a wonderful father, a caring grandfather, a treasured friend, an extraordinary colleague, a generous mentor, and a brilliant legal mind. He will be greatly missed by so many.

Richard David Fybel was born in 1946 in Los Angeles, the oldest of the three sons of Ernest and Ruth Fybel. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles and received his bachelor’s degree in political science in 1968. After graduation, Justice Fybel immediately matriculated at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law where he served on the Law Review and was elected to the Order of the Coif. He graduated in 1971 and later he served as the President of the UCLA Law Alumni Association.

Justice Fybel began his legal career at Nossaman, Waters, Scott, Krueger & Riordan in 1971. He was recruited to the San Francisco based firm Morrison Foerster in 1981. The values of MoFo were consistent with Justice Fybel’s own beliefs regarding meritocracy, service to community, and nondiscrimination. During Justice Fybel’s four-year term as the office’s managing partner, the office grew to 138 lawyers and took a decided turn toward increasing representation among women and persons of color. Justice Fybel later served as the firmwide managing partner for attorney personnel and on the firm’s management committee. According to former MoFo firm chairman Carl Leonard, despite Justice Fybel’s powerful and important position, one of his greatest assets was his humility.

In April 2000, Justice Fybel was appointed by Governor Gray Davis to the Orange County Superior Court. In February 2002, his appointment as an Associate Justice of the Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division Three was confirmed by the Commission on Judicial Appointments. During his twenty-year tenure as a justice of the Court of Appeal, Justice Fybel made significant contributions to the development of California law, the pursuit of justice, and the advancement of judicial ethics. Justice Fybel authored some 260 published opinions. His opinions display a mastery of diverse areas of law and are a valuable contribution to jurisprudence. Justice Fybel firmly believed in the fair and evenhanded application of the law and the responsibility of the court system to promote justice.

At the time of his retirement, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, Presiding Justice Kathleen O’Leary stated, “I can honestly say as far as colleagues go, Justice Fybel is the gold standard.” The Chief Justice of California, Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye commented, “The arc, scope and depth of Justice Richard Fybel’s extraordinary professional contributions to justice in California for his 22 years as a jurist are breathtaking and will guide us for years to come.” She went on to express her deepest gratitude and admiration and described him as her “dear, brilliant, kind, and gentle friend.”

A noted expert on judicial ethics, Justice Fybel chaired the California Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on the Code of Judicial Ethics from 2004 until his retirement in 2022. As chair, he successfully navigated the elimination of the Code’s controversial exception to the prohibition against judicial membership in discriminatory organizations. Based on his mastery of the topic of judicial ethics, Justice Fybel was tapped to co-write the 4th edition of the California Judicial Conduct Handbook, the 1000-page treatise on judicial ethics used by virtually every judge in California. He also chaired the advisory committee that made recommendations to the Supreme Court about the creation of the Court’s Committee on Judicial Ethics Opinions.

Justice Fybel wrote and spoke extensively on the German Legal System between 1933 and 1945 and the Nuremberg Trials. He was an Adjunct Professor at the Fowler School of Law at Chapman University, where he co-taught a seminar with Professor Michael Bazyler on The Holocaust, Genocide and the Law. Justice Fybel was a member of the Holocaust Program Planning Committee for “How the Courts Failed Germany,” cosponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the University of California and the Judicial Council, and was a panel member in the program at UCI.

Justice Fybel was a member of the Boards of Advisors of the Fowler School of Law and The Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University. He was also a member of the Board of Visitors of the UCI School of Law, and of the Jewish Law Institute Advisory Board of the Touro Law Center in New York. He was a member of the JSerra Catholic High School Pre-Law Magnet Advisory Board.

Justice Fybel viewed his Jewish faith as a blessing and took to heart basic Jewish values of justice, healing the world, charity, and kindness to others. Justice Fybel was the President of the Board of Directors of University Synagogue in Irvine from July 2010 through June 2012.

Justice Fybel was a prolific author and frequent speaker on judicial ethics, professionalism in the law, and other topics. He also was the recipient of many, many awards. A few of those awards are the President’s Award from the California Judges Association for selflessly providing time and counsel to aid the CJA’s president in advancing the association’s goals, the Franklin G. West Award presented by the Orange County Bar Association (OCBA) to outstanding attorneys and judges whose lifetime achievements have advanced justice and the law, and the 2005 UCLA Law School Alumnus of the Year for Public and Community Service Award.

Justice Fybel believed he led a charmed and blessed life, and he was grateful to all the people who helped him be in a position to make contributions in the areas he believed were important. As a person, an attorney, and a judge, he showed empathy and understanding of the impact judicial decisions have on litigants and lawyers, and he exemplified the virtues of honesty and kindness. Justice Fybel’s theory of jurisprudence was this: Fair, just, and correct results are obtained by impartially and rigorously applying the relevant principles of law to the record in light of the relevant standard of review.

When speaking at one of Justice Fybel’s many award ceremonies, Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky remarked if you were to look up the word “mensch” in a dictionary, you should see a photo of Justice Fybel. The following day, the Southern California Appellate News blog posted a photograph of Justice Fybel with the caption: “MENSCH Yiddish: מענטש‎ mentsh: A particularly good person, full of integrity and honor, with the noble qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague; a gentleman. Someone like Justice Fybel.”

Justice Fybel is survived by his wife Susan, daughter Stephanie, son Dan (Garland Testa), and four grandchildren who were the greatest joys of his life. May his memory be a blessing.