Sierra, foothills communties remember former Judge William Newsom

Hannah Jones

When former California judge William Newsom III died Wednesday at the age of 84, the Sierra Nevada and its foothills lost a longtime resident, fan and advocate, friends said.

He is survived by his son — and newly elected California Governor — Gavin Newsom, and daughter Hilary Newsom, who currently serves on the board of directors of the Tahoe Fund, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Tahoe City.

“Justice Newsom was a proud, lifelong Californian, a public servant of profound accomplishment and a powerful voice for individual rights and environmental protection,” Nathan Click, a spokesman for Gavin Newsom, said in a statement announcing the death.

Newsom’s family has long ties in Lake Tahoe and the Sierra. As a resident of Dutch Flat, a small community in the Sierra Nevada foothills, he had long been an influential figure in both Nevada and Placer counties. Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Newsom to the Placer County Superior Court in 1975, during Brown’s first term as governor, and later put Newsom on the state Court of Appeals in 1978. He retired in 1995, according to the Associated Press.

“In addition to Bill’s impressive accomplishments he also had an influential presence in Nevada County,” said Peter Van Zant, former Nevada County supervisor and friend of Newsom. Van Zant said Newsom and former District Attorney Harold Berliner were also good friends. “He was an active supporter of a number of Nevada County supervisors including me, Sam Dardick, Izzy Martin, Bruce Conklin, and Barbara Green.

“Bill was always an advocate for the Sierra Nevada conservation and served for years on the locally based Sierra Watch Board of Directors,” Van Zant said. “He will be missed.”

While on the Court of Appeals, Newsom ruled on an array of cases from privacy rights of HIV-positive health care patients to a ban on hiring women at a men’s club north of San Francisco, according to an Associated Press report. In addition he was known to advocate for environmental issues, serving on the board of the Sierra Club Foundation and on the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Bill was a giant in so many ways and will be greatly missed,” said attorney James Simon, of Porter Simon, a law firm that operates in Truckee, Tahoe City and Reno. Simon, who last spent time with Newsom at a dinner a few years ago, said he’ll relish the time he was able to spend with Newsom. “I have a few fond memories of visiting with him in Dutch Flat, running into him in the City at various pubs and generally being the beneficiary of his wit and wisdom as the occasion arose over the years.

“Engaging with Bill was always entertaining and at the same time challenging, because keeping up with his intellect was beyond my reach,” said Simon. “Condolences to all, as we have lost one of a kind.”

Newsom was restricted in how much environmental advocacy he could do while serving as a judge, former Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope told the AP. He and Newsom were close friends, with Newsom serving as the best man in Pope’s wedding.

Pope said Newsom fell in love with the landscape and nature in Dutch Flat and the foothills of the Sierra. It inspired him to help form the Mountain Lion Foundation and lead a 1990 ballot measure to ban mountain lion hunting.

“That was his country,” Pope said.

Newsom’s death comes less than a month before Gavin Newsom will be sworn in as California’s 40th governor.

“He may not have gotten to see Gavin sworn in. But he saw Gavin elected governor of this state, which was a great source of pride for Billy,” John Burton, a close friend of William Newsom’s and former member of Congress from California, told the AP.

During his gubernatorial run, Gavin Newsom said his favorite memories with his father were spent camping and backpacking along California’s rivers. His father once had a river otter as a pet, he said. His father also helped shape his views on drug policy and racial justice.

“He had an amazing life. He was an amazing influence on me,” Gavin Newsom said.

Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at 530-550-2652 or

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