Justice Robert K. Puglia

Justice Robert K. Puglia

Robert K. Puglia (1929 - 2005) served as Associate Justice (1974) and  Presiding Justice (1974 - 1998) of the California Court of Appeal, Third  Appellate District, in Sacramento, California, elevated to that court  and to the Presiding Justice office by Governor Ronald Reagan.  He  previously served on the Sacramento Superior Court, following a  distinguished legal career as a Deputy Attorney General for the State of  California, and as a Deputy and subsequently Chief Deputy District  Attorney, Sacramento County, and in private practice at McDonough  Holland & Allen.  An Ohio native, he was a graduate of the Ohio  State University and the University of California at Berkeley (Boalt Hall) Law School, and was a veteran of combat duty in Korea.

 His biography appears on the website for the California Courts.

Additional Information and tributes


Justice Puglia was a founding member and mentor of the Sacramento Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society and was a regular speaker, moderator and supporter of the chapter's many activities and programs. He encouraged an active bench and bar involvement in the most critical issues of constitutional government and the role of the judiciary. Widely regarded as a profound constitutional expert, an agile and articulate jurist and a remarkable legal intellect, his contribution to the judiciary and the bar in California will last for generations. 

A full Tribute to Justice Puglia may be downloaded here. It appears at 36 McGeorge Law Review 723, accompanied by several articles dedicated to his contributions to the law, the bench and bar, and his wife Ingrid, sons David and Tom and daughter Susan, and his extended family and friends, including the Federalist Society.

The Tribute opens with the following Foreword from the Court:

It is axiomatic that the practice of law is a thinking person's profession, and one that demands candor, civility, and collegiality. As lawyers, we are fortunate if we are privileged to work in close proximity with a person who exemplifies all these traits in their most refined manifestations. The late Presiding Justice Robert K. Puglia was one of these rare exemplars. The words that follow in the tributes included in this volume come from just a few of the judges, practitioners, and students lucky enough to work with and learn from this great jurist. Law review articles are crafted, and rightly so, toward scholarly purposes, analyzing and critiquing all aspects of our profession. However, on rare occasion, it is appropriate to depart from the usual detached forms of legal academic exposition. Every now and then, we should take the time to pen, and read, something about our work imbued with more warmth and humanity. Ours is a human profession, after all; something Justice Puglia instinctively recognized.

Also presented in tribute to Bob Puglia (excerpted) is the following from his successor as Presiding Justice of the Third District Court of Appeal, Arthur Scotland:

The stories of [Bob's] skills as a trial attorney are legendary. For example, whenever then Sacramento County Chief Deputy District Attorney Bob Puglia prosecuted a jury trial, all of the lawyers in the office who could do so would sit in the courtroom to watch the master in action (leading someone to scrawl "Hero Worship" on the office in-out board). Bob set a standard of excellence in trial that led to his gubernatorial appointment to serve as a Superior Court judge.

Bob's reputation as a trial judge was as glowing as was the distinction he earned as a trial attorney. Recently, a person who tried hundreds of jury trials in courts throughout California and Oregon remarked that the finest trial judge before whom he appeared was Bob Puglia. With his encyclopedic knowledge of the law, his firm yet velvet control of the courtroom, his respect for the law, and his decisiveness, Bob was a tour de force as a trial judge. He even was a valuable source for his colleagues on the bench, who often called Bob for his guidance on legal issues.

But it was Bob's work for almost a quarter of a century as Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, that made his brilliance known to an audience far beyond Sacramento's legal community. As expressed on the impressive bronze plaque that dedicates the Robert K. Puglia Law Library of the Court of Appeal in Sacramento, a tribute bestowed upon his retirement in December 1998, Bob's appellate opinions "are marked by scholarship, common sense, clarity and eloquence, reflecting his philosophy of judicial restraint and his understanding of the proper role of the courts in a democratic society."

Indeed, Bob's appellate opinions could serve as a textbook for judicial decision-making. They reflect his respect for the rule of law, his dedication to reach the legally correct result, and his adherence to the conviction that judges must not abuse their limited powers in our tripartite system of government. And Bob's opinions entertain, so to speak, as well as inform. A showcase for his prodigious vocabulary, his judicious use of humor, and his flare for turning a phrase to make a point, they stand apart from the often pedestrian legal writings of many jurists. Other appellate justices have been heard to say they strive to emulate Bob's work. And even those justices, lawyers, and academics who from time to time have disagreed with Bob marvel at the persuasiveness and eloquence of his appellate opinions.

With eloquence matched by few, Janice Rogers Brown, a colleague of Presiding Justice Puglia when she sat as an Associate Justice on the Court, and serving as an Associate Justice of the California Supreme Court at the time of this Tribute, said the following in a tract called "Men to Match My Mountains" (briefly excerpted) (Judge Brown next served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for 12 years, retiring in 2017): 

In 1994, after a reception welcoming me to the court, we stood on the steps of the court building and looked across the circle toward Office Building 1 at the words carved on the pediment: "Men to Match My Mountains," a fragment from a poem by Samuel Walter Foss called "The Coming American." Justice Puglia gave me the sidelong, sardonic glance, which I already recognized as a sure prelude to some outrageous comment. Giving an exaggerated sigh, he said: "I suppose we will have to sandblast those words and come up with something more politically correct. Perhaps--People to Parallel my Promontories." We both laughed. In its fuller exposition, the poem is a paean to the westward expansion of the country: 

Bring me men to match my mountains,

Bring me men to match my plains;

Men to chart a starry empire,

Men to make celestial claims.

Men to sail beyond my oceans,

Reaching for the galaxies.

These are men to build a nation,

Join the mountains to the sky;

Men of faith and inspiration . . . . 

In retrospect, it occurs to me that although Justice Puglia was inordinately proud of his Buckeye roots, like Norton Parker Chipman, the first Chief Justice of the Third Appellate District, he was also a citizen of California who filled a larger-than-life role. He was one of those men who matched her mountains.

As a young lawyer who did appellate work, I quickly came to admire Justice Puglia's jurisprudence. His opinions were intelligent, wise, witty, clear and completely accessible. He did not write in the dry, dull, bureaucratic style of most modern judges. His thoughts, clearly and eloquently expressed, were sometimes impassioned. Indeed, he made passion respectable. His opinions exude the rare sense of style and unique voice that Posner tells us is "inseparable from the idea of a great judge in [the common law] tradition."

Justice Puglia deserves a place in the pantheon of great American judges. He completely understood the role and relished it. He exhibited the classical judicial virtues: impartiality, prudence, practical wisdom, persuasiveness, and candor. He demonstrated complete mastery of his craft. He had a keen awareness of the ebb and flow of history, and of the need for consistent jurisprudence, and, above all, self-restraint. It may sound odd to describe a judge as both passionate and restrained, but it is precisely this apparent paradox-- passionate devotion to the rule of law and humility in the judicial role that allows freedom to prevail in a democratic republic.