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Saying Goodbye to a Great One

Of big bands, a big man and Janice Rogers Brown.

12:00 AM, Jun 1, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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Justice Robert K. Puglia was described--not too long ago--as "a treasure" to Sacramento's legal community. It is no exaggeration to say that his wit and wisdom will be irreplaceable. Justice Puglia once referred to himself--with the self-deprecating humor that was so characteristic--as "a dinosaur." At his retirement dinner, I ventured to say that he was "not so much a dinosaur as an ancient artifact. Like the Rosetta Stone. A text from which we could decipher the best of our past and--if we are lucky--find our way back to the future."

We are here today, much too soon, to celebrate his life, his legacy to us. The Library and Courts Building was his home for nearly 30 years. He worked there as a newly minted lawyer during a brief stint as a deputy attorney general in 1958 and 1959, and returned in 1974 when he became a member of the Third District Court of Appeal, a court where he served as the presiding justice from 1974 until November 1998. In 1994, after a reception welcoming me to the court, we stood on the steps of the court building and looked across the circle toward Office Building 1 at the words carved on the pediment: "Men to Match My Mountains," a fragment from a poem by Samuel Walter Foss called "The Coming American." Justice Puglia gave me the sidelong, sardonic glance, which I already recognized as a sure prelude to some outrageous comment. Giving an exaggerated sigh, he said: "I suppose we will have to sandblast those words and come up with something more politically correct. Perhaps--"People to Parallel my Promontories." We both laughed. In its fuller exposition, the poem is a paean to the westward expansion of the country:

Bring me men to match my mountains,

Bring me men to match my plains;

Men to chart a starry empire,

Men to make celestial claims.

Men to sail beyond my oceans,

Reaching for the galaxies.

These are men to build a nation,

Join the mountains to the sky;

Men of faith and inspiration . . .

In retrospect, it occurs to me that although Justice Puglia was inordinately proud of his Buckeye roots, like Norton Parker Chipman, the first Chief Justice of the Third Appellate District, he was also a citizen of California who filled a larger-than-life role. He was one of those men who matched her mountains.

As a young lawyer who did appellate work, I quickly came to admire Justice Puglia's jurisprudence. His opinions were intelligent, wise, witty, clear and completely accessible. He did not write in the dry, dull, bureaucratic style of most modern judges. His thoughts, clearly and eloquently expressed, were sometimes impassioned. Indeed, he made passion respectable. His opinions exude the rare sense of style and unique voice that Posner tells us is "inseparable from the idea of a great judge in [the common law] tradition."

Justice Puglia deserves a place in the pantheon of great American judges. He completely understood the role and relished it. He exhibited the classical judicial virtues: impartiality, prudence, practical wisdom, persuasiveness, and candor. He demonstrated complete mastery of his craft. He had a keen awareness of the ebb and flow of history, and of the need for consistent jurisprudence, and, above all, self-restraint. It may sound odd to describe a judge as both passionate and restrained, but it is precisely this apparent paradox--passionate devotion to the rule of law and humility in the judicial role--that allows freedom to prevail in a democratic republic.

The generation that fought in World War II has been labeled "The Greatest Generation" for their courage and selflessness, but that sobriquet belongs as well to their younger brothers who fought in Korea. Their attitudes were shaped by many of the same pivotal moments in American history, and Bob Puglia exemplified the best of his generation. He was born on the cusp of the Great Depression and came of age during Word War II. He became a devoted student of history, and perhaps that is why he seems to have had an instinctive appreciation of valor, duty, and sacrifice.

He scorned political correctness, but he treated every human being with dignity and respect. Whether he was dealing with the janitor or the governor, he never saw people as abstractions, proxies, or means to an end. He saw them as individuals and took them as he found them; expected the best of them; and never demanded more of anyone than he demanded of himself. His sense of fairness and justice applied to everyone, but his sense of humor was irrepressible. In one memorable case where a defendant filed an appeal quibbling over the deprivation of a single day of credit, Justice Puglia agreed with the inmate in a brief unpublished opinion. He found the court had miscalculated, and ended the opinion with the cheery admonition to "have a nice day!"