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Stovitz to retire after 17 years on bar court

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Come November, a man described by colleagues as the institutional memory of the State Bar Court will be stepping down.

Ronald Stovitz

Ronald Stovitz, 64, who has been an attorney with the State Bar of California and then a judge on the State Bar Court for his entire 38-year career, has decided it’s time to make room for such other interests as serving on a number of boards related to the arts, education and elections.

“Judge Stovitz will leave a huge vacuum when he departs from the court,” says his State Bar Court fellow jurist, Judith Epstein. “His institutional knowledge of the court and the disciplinary system is without peer, and he is most generous in sharing this vast knowledge.  Perhaps even more than his keen intelligence, we will miss his incredible kindness.”

With almost four decades meting out bar discipline to attorneys who have done everything from commit crimes to commingle client and personal funds and fail to make scheduled court appearances, one might think Stovitz would have a jaded opinion of his fellow barristers. Not at all.

“The overwhelming number of lawyers — probably 98 percent — work very hard, often under very great pressure, to serve their clients most ably,” he says. He adds that every case that comes before him is “regrettable.”

“I don’t cite them with any glee or humor,” he says. The circumstances of the lawyers who come before him are unfortunate reminders that attorneys “have suffered the same weakness as ministers, carpenters, X-ray technicians or any other occupation.” 

When Stovitz left the University of Southern California Law School in 1968, he had a number of options: aviation law, the U.S. Department of Labor as a labor attorney or the State Bar of California. He chose the bar position as ethics counsel (now known as deputy trial counsel) “because it aligned itself most closely with my interest in legal ethics and professional responsibility.”

Besides being an attorney for the discipline office, Stovitz has served as an attorney in the bar’s Office of General Counsel, where he represented the bar before the Supreme Court in dozens of cases, including 75 with oral arguments. He was chief counsel to the voluntary State Bar Court and the first judge in the court’s review department when the professional State Bar Court was created in 1989. He was appointed presiding judge by the state Supreme Court in 2001.

Stovitz cites as the most significant event during his tenure the change from a voluntary State Bar Court to a professional one, which, he says, led to more consistency in decisions, more time for judges to fully deliberate and fewer delays in proceedings. “Our board of governors deserves a great deal of credit for its foresight,” Stovitz says. “It was just such a large leap that had no model at the time it was done . . .  I think it will remain one of the most significant changes or enhancements in lawyer discipline.”

As his colleagues attest, Stovitz does admit to being a source of detailed information about laws, rules and cases relating to professional ethics. “I have a poor memory for names and faces of people, unfortunately, but a very good memory for citations . . .  Some people memorize the yardage of every receiver in the NFL, others every presidential candidate who ever ran. With me, it’s citations.”

Stovitz, who would like to serve as a part-time, volunteer judge after his retirement, considers his years at the bar and court a career of lifelong learning and professional satisfaction. “When I had different offers to consider, I found the one the bar offered was not only clearly in the public interest but would be very rewarding — and I have not been disappointed in the 38 years since.”

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