By Wendy Cole Lascher
“No matter where I was, I tried to remember what it was like being a trial lawyer. I wanted our court to be a hospitable place.”
Retiring Court of Appeal Justice Paul Coffee obviously achieved that goal. The first words from every staff member, lawyer and judge I interview about Coffee on the eve of his retirement focus on how nice, how human he is.
Kathy Pendergest, Coffee’s judicial assistant throughout his Court of Appeal career, describes him as a “very kind man, very dedicated. He has a great deal of integrity. His door was always open to everyone and he is a great listener, an all-around really good guy.” Research attorney Audrey Austin, who started working at the Court of Appeal at the same time as Pendergest and Coffee, says Coffee is an “amazing attorney with an amazing sense of humor…He’s a naturally talented writer” with “amazing compassion for human struggles and failings” and an ability to look at a case “beyond the words on paper.” And Division Six Clerk Paul McGill notes how Coffee always treats the court’s staff with respect, is always thoughtful and considerate of their workload and how he could help the staff.
A native of MaderaCounty, Coffee joined the Navy in 1954, after graduating from U.C. Berkeley. He spent six years as a naval aviator and then returned to Berkeleyto attend Boalt Hall School of Law.
Coffee learned what it was like to be a trial lawyer during 12 years of insurance defense practice in San Jose, followed by another 17 years in San Luis Obispo. He was elected to the American Board of Trial Advocates in 1982 and became president of the tri-counties chapter in 1989. Coffee also served as president of the Association of Defense Counsel of Northern Californiain 1989.
Fellow Justice Steven Perren first met Coffee in 1978 when Perren handled plaintiffs’ personal injury cases and Coffee was the managing partner for Hoge, Fenton, Jones and Appeal in San Luis Obispo. Perren says Coffee “was a wonderful opponent: fair, tough and courteous. He gave nothing away but respected what you did and expected the same in return. He set a standard for civility amongst the litigation bar that should be the model for all trial lawyers.”
Appointed to theSuperiorCourtofSan Luis ObispoCounty in 1992, Coffee rotated through a variety of assignments. That diverse experience served him well when Governor Deukmejian elevated Coffee to the Court of Appeal in 1997. His colleague Justice Kenneth Yegan noted that Coffee “came to us with the practical wisdom that one can obtain only from long service in the trenches of the trial court. [The late] Presiding Justice [Lester] Roth would call this, ‘toiling in the vineyard of the law.’ We were indeed fortunate to have had a colleague who had toiled so long and so well.” Coffee
says that in handling appeals he always “remembers what it was like being a trial judge.” Among other things, this has led him to remind his fellow justices “to give precise instructions in [our] opinions about what should happen in the trial court.”
When Coffee left the Navy and the thrill of carrier landings, he took up car racing. He also became an avid pleasure sailor. After joining Division Six and moving to Ventura, Coffee took up residence aboard his sailboat in the Ventura Harbor. He only recently moved ashore, to a “land yacht.”
Continue reading – February CITATIONS – page 7
Wendy Cole Lascher- is a State Bar certified specialist in appellate law with the firm Ferguson Case Orr Paterson LLC inVentura.