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Robert S. Thompson dies at 91; former state appellate judge

He also taught at USC for 11 years. In addition to his legal opinions, he was known for his sense of humor.

October 07, 2009|Elaine Woo

Robert S. Thompson, a former associate justice of the California Court of Appeal who taught law at USC for 11 years, died in San Diego on Friday after a short illness, his family said. He was 91.

Thompson's judicial career began on the Los Angeles Municipal Court, where he served from 1965 to 1966. He moved to the Los Angeles Superior Court for two years, until then-Gov. Ronald Reagan elevated him to the state Court of Appeal in 1968.

During his tenure on the appellate court he ruled on a number of noteworthy cases, including a 1974 decision that bolstered the landmark legal battle of Bill Farr, a Los Angeles journalist who, invoking California's shield law, spent 46 days in jail after refusing to reveal his sources to the judge in the Charles Manson murder trial.

Farr, who covered the Manson trial for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and later for The Times, was incarcerated on a civil contempt charge, which carried an indefinite jail term.

Thompson, writing for a three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeal, wrote that Farr was entitled to a hearing to determine if further incarceration would induce him to reveal his sources or if he was acting out of belief in a clearly articulated moral principle. If his insistence on confidentiality of sources was based on moral principle, he could be not be jailed indefinitely, which is what a lower court subsequently found.

Thompson and Farr, who died in 1987 without ever revealing his sources in the Manson case, later became good friends, said Thompson's daughter, Elizabeth.

Born in Los Angeles on June 2, 1918, Thompson earned a bachelor's degree in business in 1940 and a law degree in 1942 from USC, where he was editor of the Southern California Law Review and met his wife, Betty. She died in 2005.

In 1946, after serving four years as a captain in the Army Air Force, he began his law practice in Los Angeles, first with the firm of Thompson, Royston & Moss and later with Nossaman, Thompson, Waters & Moss.

He was known for his sense of humor, which was not universally appreciated. In 1979, he made the news after he and fellow appellate justice Mildred L. Lillie offered an inventive rebuttal to a colleague who had dissented from their opinion on an obscenity case. The first letters of each line in their seven-line rejoinder spelled out the word "schmuck." The dissenting colleague denounced Thompson and Lillie's "lack of propriety," and the city attorney's office, citing the "somewhat questionable taste" of the rebuttal, requested a rehearing of the case.

Later that year, Thompson left the bench and joined the USC law school faculty, citing frustrations with then-Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird as one of his reasons for stepping down. The author of a widely used textbook, "Remedies: Damages, Equity and Restitution," he retired from USC in 1990 but remained active on university boards.

In 2007 he named the USC law school as the final beneficiary of his estate, then valued at $6.5 million.

In addition to his daughter, Thompson is survived by a son, William, of Salt Lake City.


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