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CA Jurist with career in trial courts, water management wins national honor

By Amy Yarbrough
Staff Writer

Since his days as a young water law attorney, Justice Ronald B. Robie has sought out roles that put him in a position to make change.

More than 40 years later, the 3rd District Court of Appeal justice is being recognized nationally for his unwavering commitment to improving the courts, from civics education to judicial education and increasing access to justice.

Ronald Robie
Ronald Robie – Photo by S. Todd Rogers

This summer, Robie will receive the National Center for State Courts’ Distinguished Service Award, given annually to individuals who have made significant contributions to the justice system and supported the organization’s mission. Robie, 77, served on the board of directors of the nonprofit court improvement organization from 2005 to 2011, co-editing the “Justice Case Files” – a series of graphic novels designed to teach middle and high school students about how the justice system works.

Although he has also served on numerous other boards and commissions – including the Judicial Council, California Commission on Access to Justice and the governing committee for the Center for Judicial Education and Research (CJER) – Robie said the award caught him off guard.

“I never expected it,” he said. “I didn’t apply and wasn’t aware anyone had submitted an application on my behalf.”

Receiving the award may have come as a pleasant surprise to Robie, but the news made perfect sense to those who have worked with him.

Diane Cowdrey, the director of CJER, said Robie always thinks about the big picture and  what is good for the future.

An issue of “Justice Case Files,” a series of graphic novels Robie co-edited to teach students about the justice system.

“I’ve been involved with the National Center. I know that they highly respect Justice Robie,” she said, describing him as an “idea person” who is connected with judges around the country.

“He is just so committed to access issues and has this infectious enthusiasm about everything,” added Mary Lavery Flynn, former director of the State Bar’s Office of Legal Services.

Flynn got to know Robie through his service on the Commission on Access to Justice, which he has chaired for the past four years. Flynn described him as thoughtful, supportive and unjaded, the kind of person who gets outraged by wrongdoing. 

“He’s really good at bringing people together,” she said. “He is always the one who will reach out to others.”

As influential as Robie has been in the California judiciary, his career trajectory didn’t always lead to the law. Born in Oakland, he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in journalism from UC Berkeley before an internship at the state Capitol piqued his interest in government. He went on to obtain a law degree from McGeorge School of Law in 1967 and establish himself as an expert on water issues.

From 1969 to 1975, he served as attorney member and vice chair of the State Water Resources Control Board and during that same period began teaching a course on environmental and water law at McGeorge. In 1975, Gov. Jerry Brown named him director of the California Department of Water Resources.

Robie went on to serve as a Sacramento municipal and superior court judge for 19 years before his appointment to the Court of Appeal in 2002.

Robie uses the word exhilarating to describe his time as chair of the Commission on Access to Justice, noting that one is his biggest concerns remains language access issues.

“If you can’t go to court and can’t read the language, if the court can’t understand you, there is no access. All of these things are taken for granted in criminal … but in civil cases there is no constitutional imperative,” he said. “We are helping to level the playing field and we're giving these people the chance to be effective participants.”

Married to Lynn DeForest, a retired nurse and former Sacramento councilwoman, Robie is known for his trademark bow tie, so much so that on the day he was named chair of the access commission, most of the members showed up wearing bow ties too, Flynn said. The one member who forgot, famed trial lawyer Jim Brosnahan, was quick to improvise, fashioning a makeshift bow out of the regular tie he was wearing.

Favored neckwear aside, Robie isn’t one to put on airs, Flynn said.  “He’s very informal, despite his bow ties.”

Robie is also usually the first to volunteer and always upbeat, she added.

“I don’t hear him saying, ‘We can’t do that,’ [but] ‘How can we do that?’ ”

Despite years of severe budget cuts, Robie is nothing but positive when he talks about California’s courts.

“We still have the best judicial system, the biggest in America. It’s the strongest. It has the best leadership. A little bit more money will let us get back to where we were,” he said. “I’m confident that’s coming.”

Looking back on his career, the jurist said he does not regret never taking a more lucrative job at a law firm, citing his love of government and the “ability to do things.”

“I always felt that I made enough money to support my family, so I wasn’t driven to make a ton of money,” he said. “I have always had a passion for trying to make things better. “