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Bernard Witkin, Expert on California Law, Dies

December 28, 1995|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bernard E. Witkin, an internationally recognized authority on California law, the world's bestselling author of nonfiction legal books, a philanthropist and an influential advisory member of the California Judicial Council for more than three decades, has died. He was 91.

Witkin died Saturday at his Berkeley home of a heart attack.

"California's legal system and the people of California have suffered a great and irreplaceable loss," said California Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, chairman of the Judicial Council. "For as long as almost every attorney now practicing has been engaged in the law, the name Witkin and the comprehensive treatises that he produced have been synonymous with excellence in legal research and analysis."

William Vickrey, administrative director of the California courts, called Witkin "the heart, mind and soul of the California justice system."

Eventually becoming the author of a 32-volume collection of reference works condensing and explaining all of the legal rules of the state, Witkin established his method of summarizing the law when he graduated from Boalt Hall School of Law in 1928. He made carbon copies of the notes he had used to study for the bar exam and sold them to other would-be lawyers.

He continually revised the notes, mimeographing what he called his Summary of California Law, until 1936, when the notes were first printed and bound. The current version, the ninth edition, fills 13 volumes.

Witkin was also the author of California Procedure, California Evidence and, with 2nd District Court of Appeal Justice Norman Epstein, California Criminal Law.

Witkin's books are the mainstay of law libraries throughout California and are cited in nearly every opinion by a California court. He insisted on publishing the material on CD-ROM as soon as that technology became available, but personally continued updating the work on a manual typewriter until he died.

Witkin was named to the California Judicial Council in 1969 by then-Chief Justice Roger Traynor, and was reappointed by every subsequent chief justice, including Lucas.

The prolific scholar, writer and educator served the California Supreme Court for two decades as law clerk and then reporter of decisions. Always writing, he worked a third job from 1930 to 1955, teaching a bar review course for candidates taking the bar exam to become lawyers.

Witkin also became a noted philanthropist, first assisting causes of legal education and later expanding to other charities, including those serving children. He and his wife, Alba, distributed as much as half a million dollars a year from the charitable trust they established in 1982. Their contributions to the city of Berkeley were recognized two months ago when they received the prestigious Benjamin Ide Wheeler Award.

In 1972, Witkin helped found the California Center for Judicial Education and Research to produce educational materials for judges and used $250,000 of his own funds to finance the project.

He wrote a Manual on Appellate Court Opinions, which was used throughout the nation as well as in California, and was honored by Congress as well as both houses of the California Legislature and the California Judges Assn., which made him the only honorary member in its history. The State Bar of California named its annual award for outstanding contribution to the legal profession the Bernard E. Witkin Medal in honor of its original recipient.

A native of Holyoke, Mass., Witkin grew up in San Francisco and attended UC Berkeley before enrolling in law at Boalt Hall.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Cara Monson of Pioneer, Calif., and Lucy Davaly of Santa Rosa, Calif.; a son, Joel, of Guerneville, Calif; and one grandson.

The family has requested that any memorial donations be made to the Foundation for Judicial Education, 33 New Montgomery St., Suite 1530, San Francisco, CA 94105, or to a charity of the donor's choice.

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