10:55 PM PST on Monday, March 1, 2010

By RICHARD K. DE ATLEY
The Press-Enterprise

Barton C. Gaut, who served his entire legal career in Riverside, from a fresh-out-of-law school litigator in 1962 to an associate justice at the Fourth District Court of Appeal branch in Riverside, begins easing into retirement this week.

Travel with Merla, his wife of 54 years, to see grandchildren and taking a few cases by assignment at the appellate court are the immediate plans, said Gaut, 74.

He has a reputation among friends for a sharp sense of humor — he gives people nicknames of his own invention. He likes to work with opera or classical music playing in his chambers. And he is an outdoorsman who has trekked Europe and California’s Sierra — hiking, backpacking and cross-country skiing.

Fellow Associate Justice Art W. McKinster calls him “Spooky smart … you can’t outwork him, and you can’t outthink him.”

But Gaut is subdued when it comes to talking about himself. His emotions seem reserved for his family, and then his profession.

During an interview in his chambers during his final full week at the courthouse, Gaut didn’t point to any particular cases during his 32-year career at the Riverside law firm of Best Best & Krieger, although he was constantly working on them — meticulously, and on nights and weekends, his former law firm colleagues said.

Nor did he point out one of his decisions during his nearly 13 years as an appellate court justice, although he wrote more than 1,900 of them, with 105 of those “published” — placed on the record for attorneys to cite.

“The first-person singular is not in his vocabulary,” said Riverside attorney Terry Bridges, a friend of Gaut’s for 45 years.

Gaut grew up in Hawthorne, where his father was an aircraft worker for Northrup. He went to UCLA for his undergraduate degree, spent time in the Army, and then headed for UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall for his law degree.

By the time he graduated from Boalt in 1962, he and Merla had two of their four children.

“My wife, I think it was difficult for her,” he said of those early years, his voice catching. “She is a remarkable woman.”

Gaut said he got offers from Los Angeles firms but liked the one from Riverside-based Best Best & Krieger, and headed to Inland Southern California.

William R. DeWolfe, now a partner in the firm, said he and Gaut came to the law firm in the latter part of 1962. “I could tell from the beginning that he was a really smart guy and a very hard worker … I don’t think Bart ever limited the kinds of cases that he would take,” DeWolfe said.

Gaut was eventually regarded as one of the firm’s best lawyers, DeWolfe said. And Gaut also gained a reputation as supervisor.

“I started with BBK in 1985, one year out of law school,” said partner Howard B. Golds. He recalled Gaut’s regimen for new attorneys, called associates.

“He had certain ways he wanted things done, and as an associate you needed to do them just the way he wanted,” Golds said. “Which was fine, because his expectations were the right expectations.”

Gaut was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson to Riverside County Superior Court in November 1995 and less than two years later, in May 1997, was elevated to the appellate court. The court hears appeals from Riverside, San Bernardino and Inyo counties.

4th District Court of Appeal Division 2 Presiding Justice Manuel A. Ramirez said Gaut’s opinions became known for their style and substance.

“He comes as close to being the ideal justice as anyone I have ever worked with,” Ramirez said in a recent courthouse celebration for Gaut.

Among Gaut’s commemorations from that event was a plaque with one of what Bridges called Gaut’s “Bart-speak” or “Bart-ism” words — “Studeldink.”

The names — variations on the word “fink” among them — were applied with humor to colleagues and friends.

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