Opinion Columns & Blogs

Atascaderan left his mark on the bench

Like many folks of a certain age who still read a newspaper, I immediately check the obituary page each morning when I open The Tribune.

First, I want to make sure I wasn’t listed overnight; second, it’s the final word on what kind of life a person had lived while on Earth. As it turns out, I’m just a sucker for a good biography and, like a bounty hunter of old, I’ll take those stories dead or alive.

Along those lines, I read last week that Judge Donald N. Gates had died of congestive heart failure at 83 in his Atascadero home. Although our paths never crossed, he was the kind of guy who would have been interesting to sit down with for a chat or two.

From humble, almost Horatio Alger-like beginnings, Gates rose to prominence as a judge on the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

As his obits in the Los Angeles Times and Tribune noted, Donald Neil Gates was “born in the backwoods of Oregon to a family of lumberjacks” on March 9, 1926. He was the only person in his family to go beyond the eighth grade.

A tall, athletic man with a big grin, he served in the Army Air Force during World War II, then went on to UC Berkeley and earned his law degree at UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco in 1953.

Following a stint in private practice, he served the 2nd District Court of Appeal first as a staff attorney and then as chief research attorney.

Fellow appellate court Justice Kenneth R. Yegan said he believes Gates drafted more than 5,000 opinions for the court during that time. He was subsequently appointed to the appellate court in 1982 and served in that capacity for the next 13 years.

Gates apparently wasn’t one to sit on the sidelines.

By political spectrum standards, he was known as a liberal, maybe even a socialist, for his staunch support of civil liberties. And, while on the appellate court, he was disparaged by right-to-life stalwarts because he was so committed to a person’s right to death.

That issue came to a head in the mid-1980s in the person of Elizabeth Bouvia. Bouvia admitted herself into the psychiatric ward of Riverside’s General Hospital on Sept. 3, 1983. At the age of 26, she was almost a total quadriplegic from the effects of cerebral palsy and painful degenerative arthritis.

She’d been having thoughts of suicide and asked to starve to death. The hospital decided to force-feed with a tube that was so painful that some physicians at the time called the practice torture. She sued the hospital and lost. She appealed and lost.

Then because she would bite the tube, four hospital personnel would hold her down and insert a feeding tube through her nose and into her stomach. She appealed again and Gates led the opinion that the force-feeding was battery and she won.

Bouvia subsequently decided she wanted to live, but her experience had put Gates firmly in the right-to-die camp. He believed in the philosophy so much that he had “DNR” tattooed on his chest — initials standing for “Do Not Resuscitate” — in the event that he found himself in a hospital with his life hanging in the balance.

That possibility wasn’t too far off the realm of possibility. In addition to being opinionated and humorous, Gates also lived life to the fullest.

Family friend Shauna Somers Greene says of Gates: “He rode motorcycles until his 80s, ran marathons and raced dirt bikes with the likes of Steve McQueen, piloted light planes and (since moving to Atascadero 12 years ago) knew every back road there was in the area.”

He was also, as the cliché goes, sober as a judge. Gates was a committed recovering alcoholic for the past 46 years. Although the organization is based on anonymity, Gates apparently was a ready, willing and able speaker who supported AA with wit, honesty and sincerity.

Twice divorced, he married his third wife, Tonya, 30 years ago. He leaves behind four children; two stepchildren; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildrenl.

We rest your case, your honor. The verdict on your life is that it was well examined and nicely done.