March 2024 A Criminal Waste of Space - Déjà vu, ja vu, ja vu

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

I’m gonna try this again.

I’ve tried twice to retire, and I’m 0-2. While this corresponds pretty closely to my life’s athletic history, failing to retire seems somehow more embarrassing than grounding out to short.

It’s gotten to where everyone laughs when I mention retirement. I am—as you may have noticed—a man who likes to make people laugh, so that’s not entirely a bad thing. But the specter of an unattended retirement party because everybody thinks it’s a joke has made me more wary of crying “Wolf,” so I think this time it may actually happen.

I think I’m ready this time. People have been telling me for years, “You’ll know when it’s time.” I considered that advice of limited utility until I began actually feeling like it’s time. Before, I felt like the calendar was telling me to retire; now I feel like it’s me.

I’ll be seventy-seven in November, and while that is not exactly “a good round number,”1 it seems like a reasonable finish line for a legal career. By the time my birthday—and retirement—rolls around, I’ll have been working legal jobs for fifty-five years. So my career will have lasted longer than the Berlin Wall, Atari, the Choco Taco, and most French Republics.

It’s also longer than People’s Park lasted in Berkeley. I mention that because that’s both when and where my career started.

I went to law school in Berkeley in the late sixties. I missed the Free Speech Movement, but I was there for People’s Park, Eldridge Cleaver, and tear gas. A lot of tear gas.

Little-known fact: You don’t have to be in an enclosed space for tear gas to disable you. If demonstrators were being gassed anywhere on campus, it would waft up the hill to the law school and empty the patios pretty quickly. Which turned out to be an important thing in my first legal job.

In October of ’69, I landed a job as a cite-checker for Continuing Education of the Bar. It was a great job: I learned law, improved my research and writing skills, and got to work across the street from Blondie’s, the best pizza-by-the-slice take-out place in the free world.

But the best thing about the job was that CEB was a part of the University of California. These were turbulent times, and campus demonstrations sometimes descended into violence. When that seemed imminent, the university would close its doors and order all employees to go home for their own safety.

That included CEB. Our offices were above a furniture store on Telegraph Avenue,2 but we were university employees and were ordered to go home anytime the campus shut down. With pay. So if I was working on Telegraph and the campus closed down, I got paid for whatever I had clocked in for.

These were student jobs, and the hours were flexible. But you were required when you clocked in to say how long you were going to work. You could work from eight to five or you could work from one to two-thirty, but you had to indicate your workday on your timecard when you first checked in.

So when there were expected demonstrations on campus, all the cite-checkers would gather early in the morning, pool our intelligence on how likely the demonstration was to get violent or dangerous, and put in for the appropriate number of hours. On days when we thought campus would shut down, we’d put in for the most hours we could. We got burned occasionally and ended up having to work through Con Law and borrow somebody’s notes, but we also got some lovely paid afternoons in Strawberry Canyon.

I had a bit of a crush on one of the CEB authors. She had an easy smile and a great sense of humor, and—looking back on it—was remarkably forgiving of the incessant style and word usage suggestions her second-year law student checker included with his cite-checked pages. She was working on the second edition of the California Criminal Law Practice Handbook, which covered the area of the law I was most interested in, and I greatly benefitted from conversations with her.

Her name was Kay Werdegar. Yes, that Kay Werdegar. As in Justice Kathryn Werdegar of the California Supreme Court. We later joked about the fact I started my career correcting her work and she ended hers correcting mine.

She also—indirectly—introduced me to our present Chief Justice. After she announced her retirement, Justice Werdegar was deluged with requests for speaking engagements. The San Diego Bar asked her to choose an interviewer for a lunchtime interview. She chose me.

During my introduction of her, my cellphone went off. It’s always an embarrassing moment when you forget to turn off your cellphone for a speaking engagement, but it’s even worse for me. My ringtone is the opening bars of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” one of the best Country and Western songs of all time.

Fortunately, there’s five seconds of instrumental intro to the song and I was able to turn off the phone before Merle intoned, “First thing I remember knowin’ was a lonesome whistle blowin’” into my microphone.3 Most of the audience knew only that some kind of music had come out of the idiot’s pocket before he could turn off his phone, but I was convinced I had moved quickly enough to keep my love of country music from being outed.

But when we had finished, Justice Werdegar was generously accepting congratulations on her career and I was gathering my notes into my briefcase when a woman I did not know came up to me and said simply, “Mama Tried?”

I was amazed. I said, “You recognized it from the opening bars?! Without even hearing his voice?!?!”

To which now-Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero answered, “Daddy was a rodeo cowboy.”4

So CEB honed my research and writing skills, paid me enough to get me through my second and third years of law school, introduced me to two women I think highly of, and gave me a story I love so much I stop people on the street to tell it to them.

That’s been a tough act for the rest of my career to follow, but I’ve had a helluva good time. And if the third crack at retirement really is the charm and I manage to point my horse toward the sunset this time, it’s been a great ride.

But you’re probably wondering, “What’s next? Private judging, sitting by assignment, margaritas by the pool? How do you follow twenty-seven years on the Court of Appeal?”5

Well, the LinkedIn people think I have a future as an asset protection officer. They are impressed enough by my career that they’ve recommended no fewer than three jobs trying to detect shoplifting in retail stores.

Today’s “Top job picks for you” email from them led off with “Pet Hotel Associate.” Apparently, PetSmart is hiring for this job, which sounds pretty good to me, but it’s full-time and I’m kinda hoping to downsize my hours.

Last summer I was recruited by “the Franchise Development Director for Deka Lash, a national leader in the lash extension industry with 130+ locations.” She said—so help me—“I came across your impressive background with the State of California and wanted to reach out to you personally.”6 So franchisee for an eyelash extension location is definitely on the list.

More recently, I got this from the V’s Barbershop company, “a boutique barbershop and self-care franchise”: “Hi William, I was browsing your background and experience with the State of California Court of Appeal and it piqued my interest—so I thought I’d reach out.”

Obviously, these people, after familiarizing themselves with my “impressive background” on the court, after considering my decade as a trial judge and my fifteen years of criminal prosecution, have identified personal grooming as the area of expertise they might trust me with.7

So my fifty-two years of practicing law have established me as just another pretty face.

If we can work out the hours somehow, I’m thinking a barbershop that does eyelash extensions and will feed your schnauzer while you’re in the chair might be just the ticket.

Stay tuned.


  1. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a number less round than side-by-side sevens.
  2. This was like working above the Creature Cantina on Tatooine in the Star Wars movies. Telegraph Avenue has always been what people think of when they think of Berkeley. Sheer, unadulterated craziness. And being a part of it in the late sixties was like being a Yankees fan in the late twenties: you were seeing them at their absolute best.
  3. The most famous line in “Mama Tried” is, “I turned 21 in prison, doin’ life without parole.” The fact I have it as a ringtone may reassure you about whether my retirement goes down as a W or an L.
  4. Which reassures me about the direction our Supreme Court will take without me here to guide them.
  5. Actually, you’re probably wondering, “Why am I still reading this? We’re 1200 words in and I’m still here? What’s wrong with me?” but let’s indulge in a literary fiction here and pretend you’re wondering what my future plans are.
  6. Honest. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’. I’ve still got the email.
  7. Although no one suggests actually allowing me near the client; they just want my “impressive background.”

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 william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.