The passing of a legal giant

Bernie Witkin's legacy will live not only in memory, but also through scholarship via a new institute to house his library

Staff Writer

California legal giant Bernard Witkin may be irreplaceable, but he left behind a hand-picked group to continue his legacy of scholarship.

Witkin's legendary work will continue to be expanded with the 33rd volume, a new edition of "California Procedure," expected to be published by the end of the year.

And the new Witkin Legal Institute, an organization devoted to maintaining and enhancing the quality of the treatises that comprise the Witkin Library, will be inaugurated later this month.

The longtime "guru to the California judiciary" died of a heart attack Dec. 23 at his Berkeley home. He was 91.

"There is no question his works and legacy will continue," said Hal Norton, a longtime friend and former executive director of the Alameda County Bar Association. "It is doubtful that anyone will be able to duplicate what he has done."

Bernard Witkin hated the impracticality and pedagogy of law school, yet he became California's foremost legal writer. Although he never practiced law or sat on a bench, the California Judges Association named him "Guru to the California Judiciary."

"He combined historic perspective, depth of knowledge and an openness to new ideas to provide invaluable insights," said California Supreme Court Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas. "At the age of 91, he was still talking avidly about exciting new developments in CD-ROM technology that often left the rest of us behind."

The notes Witkin assembled to help him pass the bar exam in 1928 evolved into his first "Summary of California Law," published as a bound volume eight years later. Since then, the summary has gone through nine editions, and with Witkin's other works, encompasses virtually all California jurisprudence.

Legalese is absent from those volumes, as are Latin phrases and footnotes.

A special gift

"Bernie's body of work is the clearest and most comprehensive guide to knowing what the law is and how to apply it," wrote Second District Court of Appeal Justice Norman L. Epstein after Witkin's death.

"Bernie's particular gift was his ability to appreciate and comprehend the entire body of the law and to restate it in terms that lawyers and judges can readily understand and put to immediate use."
"The hallmarks of his work are organization, accuracy, clear expression and selectivity."

Born in 1904 to Russian immigrant parents in Holyoke, Mass., Witkin moved with his family to San Francisco when he was five. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, where he excelled in debate. Rejecting an offer to coach the University of Nevada debate team, he entered law school at what is now Boalt Hall.

He often made clear his disdain of law school and law professors, whom he felt treated students with arrogance. Although he cut class as often as he could, he discovered there was a market for his notes.

"I learned that whatever I could understand, I could state in simpler terms and teach," Witkin said in a 1989 interview. "The available bar review materials were preposterous. I knew I could do better."

In 1930, Witkin began a 10-year stint as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Langdon. He then joined the staff of Justice Phil Gibson and in 1942 was named the official reporter of the Supreme Court and appellate decisions, a position he held for seven years.

All the while, Witkin worked on expanding his summary and by the 1950s had contracted with a publishing house. In 1981, he hand-picked four attorneys and created the "Witkin Department" at publisher Bancroft-Whitney to continue his work.

By the time of his death, the department had grown to 11 attorneys and four support staff.

Co-director Dave Bonelli said Witkin recognized it was impossible for one person to keep up with the enormous amount of legislation approved in California each year as well as the large number of judicial opinions.

"His prior editions were getting pretty old and starting new editions required a lot of help," Bonelli said.

Witkin trained the department "in all the Witkin methods, including selection of materials and his style of briefing and organizing."

"We had to be completely committed to the work and to share Bernie's love for service and the law," says Bonelli.

Witkin's treatises grew over the years to include procedure (10 volumes, 3rd edition), evidence (three volumes, 3rd edition) and criminal law (six volumes, 2nd edition) in addition to 13 volumes of the summary. The 9th edition was published in 1990.

In a nod to progress, he made sure all his work was made available on CD-ROM.

The new Witkin Legal Institute, whose formation was announced by Witkin's widow, Alba, at a memorial service last month, was developed prior to his death. In addition to developing new publications and projects for judges and lawyers, the Institute will support a variety of professional activities throughout the state.

One of a kind

The only honorary member of the California Judges Association, Witkin also helped develop California's judicial education center and fund publication of judicial ethics and retirement handbooks.

Indeed, his financial generosity was as legendary as his scholarship. Witkin and his wife donated millions through the B.E. and Alba Witkin Charitable Trust. Recipients include both legal and charitable organizations, including seniors, cultural groups and particularly children.

Witkin's family requests that donations be made to the Foundation for Judicial Education, 33 New Montgomery St., Suite 1530, San Francisco 94105, or to a charity of the donor's choice.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A longtime friend remembers the legal legend. See Opinion.