A Tribute to Bernard E. Witkin

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law.

Most practicing attorneys have an appreciation for practice guides, which are succinct, helpful volumes dedicated to how to do particular things.  Usually, we are taught in law school, we should not cite directly to practice guides, because they are secondary sources.  One exception may be (and still, it should be done sparingly) is a citation to Bernard E. Witkin’s treatises, the Summary of California Law, California Procedure, California Evidence, and California Criminal Law.  My legal research and writing instructor even referred to Mr. Witkin as “Uncle Bernie.”  Our courts in California have had little trouble citing to Witkin (according to one source over 20,000 times) versus using primary law, but that is an honor usually reserved to the judiciary.

To say that Bernard Witkin is held in high esteem is an understatement.  Here are some epithets given to Bernard Witkin and judicial sentiments reflecting the esteem felt towards Mr. Witkin  in California case law:

“the eminent Bernard E. Witkin” Continental Airlines, Inc. v. McDonnell Douglas Corp. (1988) 216 Cal.App.3d 388, 421.

“the venerable Bernard E. Witkin” People v. Hinton (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 655, 662.

“Bernard E. Witkin, beyond question the foremost commentator on California law” People v. Barraza (1979) 23 Cal.3d 675, 695.

“The legal sage Bernard E. Witkin authoritatively advises” Corbett v. Franchise Tax Bd. (1985) 167 Cal.App.3d 808 (Not officially published).

The California Legislature held Bernard Witkin in similar esteem; California Education Code section 19328(a)  reads:

The Legislature hereby finds and declares that Bernard E. Witkin’s legendary contribution to California law is deserving of a lasting tribute and an expression of gratitude from the state whose legal system, he, more than any other single individual in the 20th century, helped to shape.

The Supreme Court of California convened in San Francisco on December 3, 1996 to remember Bernard Witkin about a year after he died.  The Supreme Court holds such sessions when someone connected to the court dies, but according to his remarks on that day, then-Chief Justice Ronald M. George said it was the first time an individual other than a staff member or justice of the court was so honored.  Justice Ming Chin said that Governor Pete Wilson called him “the Guru of California Law,” that former Chief Justice Lucas said that the “Witkin summaries of California Law made us the envy of the nation” and Justice Ching said that “Bernie Witkin and California law have always been synonymous.”  Justice Norman Epstein of the Second District Court of Appeal called him “the Justinian of California.”

The reason why Witkin was– and is –so revered is that he laid down black letter law without the nonsense that you see in more academic writing about the law.  Even more than 16 years after his death, I am indebted to the work he pioneered in the last century.

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