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COURT: Marin County Superior APPOINTED: Feb. 22, 2000 DATE OF BIRTH: Sept. 16, 1941 LAW SCHOOL: Hastings College of the Law, 1972 PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: None Most judges have impressive resumes and even a few good stories to tell, but Marin County Superior Court Judge James Ritchie has a true tale to top them all. As a U.S. Navy fighter pilot during the late ’60s, his F4 Phantom jet was shot down over North Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin. “I remember a pretty big thump,” Ritchie recalled on a recent morning. “Right after that, the plane pitched up in the air, and I spent the next 15 or 20 seconds trying to regain control.” Realizing that was futile, Ritchie said, he and his radar man bailed out at 8,000 feet and watched their fire-engulfed jet going down. “Your mind is racing about what’s coming next,” Ritchie said. “You’re concerned you’re in an area where there’s not friendly people. I was concerned about who shot us.” Ritchie was prepared to start paddling south as soon as he hit water. But he and his crewman were picked up “pretty quickly” — and unharmed — by an American helicopter crew. A gung-ho officer who earned his share of medals and rose to the rank of lieutenant, Ritchie nonetheless returned home “more cynical” and “questioning” of U.S. policies in Vietnam. The experience apparently helped mold him into a mellow, yet organized, judge. “He’s just a fun guy,” said Marin County Deputy Public Defender Pedro Oliveros. “You walk into his courtroom and it just seems like the anxiety level goes down, not up.” On a recent morning in his San Rafael courtroom, the youthful-looking and physically fit 63-year-old Ritchie, who has spent most of his judicial career in criminal court, didn’t hesitate to wade into a thicket of complicated civil cases. He aggressively but politely engaged the attorneys with questions and suggestions, trying to find common ground or move toward a solution. He even disqualified himself from one case, telling a disappointed plaintiff that he knew the general contractor in the dispute. From what Charles Cacciatore, a Marin deputy district attorney who worked with Ritchie for a year in criminal court, had to say, the judge’s actions that day reflect his style. “He’s always trying to do the right thing, listens to both sides,” Cacciatore said. “He was very open-minded. You never got the sense that he prejudged a situation.” Ashley Worsham, another Marin deputy DA, agreed, calling Ritchie one of the “most compassionate” judges in Marin. “He’s conscientious, fair and just really dedicated to making sure that justice is served,” she said. Ritchie doesn’t get straight A’s from all attorneys, however. Some call him indecisive and, while he was generally praised by attorneys in the 2005 edition of “California Courts and Judges,” a few said cases don’t move fast enough. Deputy PD Oliveros said some confuse indecision with Ritchie’s innate caution. “He’s very judicious. He really, really thinks carefully about his rulings,” Oliveros said. “And the thing I like about it is if he knows he’s incorrect, he’ll go back and make a ruling that he believes is fair and just.” Born in Chicago and raised in Indiana, Ritchie had no strong connections to the law, even though his maternal grandfather was a judge in Wisconsin. While getting a business degree from Purdue University, he joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, which committed him to military service after graduating in 1963. Upon his return from Vietnam, Ritchie moved to California and attended Hastings College of the Law on the G.I. bill, graduating in 1972. Ritchie practiced insurance defense at first, “because I wanted to try some cases. I wanted to get in the courtroom.” He also subsequently handled labor law, maritime law and personal injury on the plaintiffs’ side for flight attendants, airline pilots and professional football players. He worked at a series of San Francisco firms, most as a partner, for 27 years — Bledsoe, Smith, Cathcart, Boyd & Eliot; Henning, Walsh & Ritchie; McGlynn, McLorg & Ritchie; and Lewis, D’Amato, Brisbois & Bisgaard — before being appointed to the bench in 2000 by then-Gov. Gray Davis. Ritchie prefers a judge’s life. “The problems of practicing law become the problems of the business of law,” he said. “You spend a lot of time with where your business comes from, how to take care of your business and billing for time. Being a judge frees you from that.” In addition, Ritchie feels he’s accomplishing more. “It’s the everyday dealing with the problems people have,” he said. “You can get a real sense of satisfaction at the end of the day.” Ritchie will tolerate attorneys’ different approaches to cases but is most impressed “with a lawyer who can tell you what the issue is and then marshal the facts to show you why he is right.” He also appreciates well-written briefs. “They are really important to me,” he said. “And being they’re briefs, as the name implies, being brief is a good thing.” Ritchie’s wife, Suzanne Cutts Ritchie, is a part-time estate planning lawyer in Mill Valley, and he has two children in college — Will, a senior, and Ann, a freshman. In a reflective moment, he indicated he was somewhat lucky to have come of age when he did. Kids nowadays, he said, have to make quicker decisions about work, college or even higher degrees. “The military, in some ways, took that away from us,” Ritchie said. “It gave us time to grow up and find ourselves.”

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