Judge Baty, “the law west of White’s Hill,” dies at 90


David Baty, the last magistrate of West Marin and a career lawyer, died peacefully in his Inverness Park home on Oct. 29, surrounded by his family. He was 90 years old.

Judge Baty, as he was known until his death, served as the area’s only justice court judge before becoming a county municipal court judge. During his nearly 30 years interpreting the law, he earned a reputation for being unequivocally tough on cases involving poaching and drunk driving. Colleagues said he was “often arbitrary, but never unfair,” and his judicial candor and sense of humor gained the respect even of those he sentenced.

“Dad would jokingly refer to himself as ‘the law west of White’s Hill,’” his son Tom said. “And it’s amazing, since his death, I’ve had a couple of people approach me in Point Reyes and tell me about how he put them away in jail. With the benefit of many years in the interim, they look at it as not a bad thing, and not out of line. They respected him for it.”

David was born on Jan. 22, 1927 in Chicago to Eben and Emma Baty. His father worked for the Banker’s Association and furiously lobbied in Washington against  A.P. Giannini, the founder of Bank of America who advocated for nationwide branch banking. When David was nine months old, the family relocated to Flossmoor, Ill., where his mother taught Sunday school. He shared a room with his older brother, Jackson, and together they looked out for their younger sister, Mary. 

The earliest memory David had was of an accident that led to a retroactive amnesia. When he was 5 years old, he was out  roaming with Jackson when he fell off a railroad viaduct, landing on the side of his head on concrete.

“He basically said he lost the first five years of life and had to relearn how to walk, but it seemed to give him a real appreciation for life,” Tom said. “He had an amazing long-term memory that he carried throughout his life, whether it was the names of classmates, lessons learned in grade school or quoting Latin.”

Later, when David was 9, he traveled around Iowa with his grandfather, a public relations officer for the Household Finance Corporation. One night, they listened to the June 22, 1938 boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.

“We happened to be in Cedar Rapids, Iowa staying at the Roosevelt Hotel there,” David said in a 2011 oral history with his daughter-in-law Sherry. “I remember it particularly because Louis, I think, scared the German to death. Knocked him out in a minute and 28 seconds in the first round. I didn’t get to attend the fight, but I heard it...and I do distinctly recall it.”

His parents instilled in him a love of reading, and he considered his father to be more influential in his education than any teacher, from grade school through law school. 

Michael Dufficy, a retired Marin superior court judge and a longtime friend, said David was a voracious reader who always had a recommendation. 

“He was one of these guys who would ask you if you had read this book, and of course you hadn’t,” Mr. Dufficy said. “He would tell you you had to and then give it to you, but he was possessive and would want the book back. He would call for it four days later!”

David also enjoyed writing, and he attributed his facility with words to his father, who would copy edit his essays with a blue pencil. Eben pulled his son out of high school at the University of Chicago Laboratory School after two years to place him in a more challenging environment at the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. David was soon drafted, but deferred to finish school.

He would serve in the Navy for a couple of years, briefly reporting for a military newspaper, before attending Stanford to study history.

“One of his passions in life was reading vast amounts of history,” Tom said. “Mostly U.S., but a real focus on political and presidential history.”

Yet David took a hiatus from Stanford  to spend time in Guam, where he had been stationed while in the Navy. He spent the next two years working as an immigration officer before returning to Stanford to finish his law degree. He was in the same graduating class as future associate justice of the Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor.

One night, David attended a party and noticed a woman on the other side of the room, graduate student Suzanne Gosney. David told Sherry that he fell in love with her “when I first laid eyes across a crowded room.” The couple began dating, taking ski trips and playing tennis. David recalled taking her to see the 1953 war film “Stalag 17,” but leaving after just 10 minutes to smoke a cigar in the lobby instead.  

The couple was married at the Stanford Chapel on Dec. 19, 1954 during David’s final year  of law school. Upon his graduation, they moved to San Rafael, where he worked as a lawyer for a private practice. Then he noticed an opportunity. 

“I’m down at the office one afternoon and I pick up the Independent Journal. And it had a little squib—maybe 6-inch, single column—that Judge Stice, the justice court judge in West Marin, had announced that he was retiring,” David said in 2011. “But it meant that the supervisors would have to appoint a successor.”

He edged out his competitor, who had been picked up on a second drunk driving arrest, and began serving as West Marin’s justice court judge in 1959. That same year, he relocated his family—which would eventually include four children, David, Tom, Catherine and Nathan—to West Marin. He hired an architect to build a home off Fox Drive in Inverness Park, with space for a large, book-lined study.

Before 1969, when justice courts were merged with municipal courts throughout the state—a merger David helped facilitate—a justice court judge would hear misdemeanors. The cases had no bail structure, meaning the defendant had to appear. 

West Marin’s court operated in the sheriff’s substation in Point Reyes Station, though bigger legal cases were often held in the gym in West Marin School, and children attended so they could see how courts functioned. Former sheriff’s deputy Weldon Travis recalled sticky fly paper hanging from the ceiling on the substation, ready to nab pesky strays from Waldo Giacomini’s dairy ranch.

“We looked upon David as an ally because we knew that he was fair and balanced,” Mr. Travis said. “If he thought we were barking up the wrong tree, he’d tell us very plainly.”

David’s docket was light: he heard cases on Wednesday mornings, and spent the rest of the week working as an attorney at a San Rafael law firm.

David and his law partner, Ann Diamond, eventually brought on Beverly Savitt, who said he taught her business and real estate law. She recalled David’s unflinching stance on a particular alcohol-related case.

“A lawyer friend of mine had a client who had a hearing in front of David,” Ms. Savitt said. “There was an agreement with the district attorney over the sentencing. The client had been arrested for drunkenness in public and my friend couldn’t go to court that day, so I went to be their representation. Judge Baty refused to accept the agreement the attorney had with the D.A. He said, ‘I know Mr. so-and-so and alcohol is his problem. I’m not going to reason it.’”

David would remain true to his values after becoming a municipal court judge in 1971.

“He was really intolerant of egregious poaching cases and came down hard in those situations,” Tom said. “Just after he moved to municipal court, there were four people brought in who had this huge over-limit of cockles taken from Tomales Bay. Dad threw them in jail for 30 days, and eyebrows immediately went up all around the San Rafael courthouse. The legend is—I don’t know how true this is—that someone said, ‘Jeez Judge, no one got killed.’ And my dad’s response was, ‘Did anyone check in with the clams about that?’”

After 16 years on the municipal court bench, David retired in 1987, though he continued his private practice. He was a mediator in a case involving the Church of Scientology and officiated numerous weddings, including for Philip K. Dick, as well as for his son and daughter-in-law, Tom and Sherry.

In his later years, he and Sue traveled  throughout Scandinavia and New Zealand. David kept multiple books on his nightstand at one time and continued to engage in politics. 

He even bucked the old adage that people don’t reverse political stances as they age: after a lifetime in the Republican Party, David gravitated toward the center. Last year, he placed a Bernie Sanders sticker on his wheelchair. 

“My politics were like the politics of Louis XIV’s foreign minister, Duke of Talleyrand, who said, ‘Above all, not too much zeal,’” David told Sherry. “That’s been the way I’ve tried to be.”

Tom said that recently, David’s greatest joy was watching his grandson, Thomas, grow up. He said he spoke fondly of Point Reyes Station—which he called “the village”—and appreciated knowing the people he saw in the post office and hardware store. 

David also kept in touch with his former law colleagues, joining Ms. Savitt and Mr. Dufficy for a retired judge’s monthly luncheon at Marin Joe’s in Corte Madera. But his health began to suffer about eight years ago due to a combination of Type 2 diabetes and a series of what his family believes were small strokes. When it took a turn a few weeks ago, his family gathered by his side. 

Although Tom said his father didn’t believe in an afterlife, the impression left by West Marin’s last judge may echo everlastingly. 

“When I was little, someone put a fishing rod in my hands, and I was hooked,” Tom said. “Throughout my childhood, Dad took me fishing all of the time to Papermill Creek, various ponds and some ranches. I thought Dad was a great fisherman, but as soon as I could propel myself to fish on my own, he completely stopped. I realized it wasn’t about fishing for him; it was about being a great father.”


David Baty is survived by his wife, Sue; children Tom, Catherine and Nathan and grandson Thomas. He is predeceased by his son David. Donations can be made in his name to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools or the Salvation Army.