CAPITAL CASE DROVE BETTINELLI FROM BENCH
BORN: April 21, 1944
LAW SCHOOL: Boalt Hall School of Law, 1969
PREVIOUS JUDICIAL EXPERIENCE: Sonoma County Superior Court, 1982-1991; Sonoma County Municipal Court, 1977-1982
It was nearly 20 years ago that a shooting outside his Sonoma County courtroom made Judge William Bettinelli start rethinking his career as a judge. Then came the final blow.
“Shortly after that, I was assigned a death penalty murder case,” Bettinelli, now the chairman of ADR provider JAMS, said in a recent interview.
“And shortly after that, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to issue a death penalty sentence, I couldn’t follow through on my judicial oath,” he continued. “So I decided it was time to find something else to do.”
It was a hard decision for someone who was only 33 when he got on the bench. “It was a very personal time,” he said.
Bettinelli, who had been a partner at an agriculture-oriented Sonoma firm, began looking around for another firm to join.
“In the process, I realized that 13 years before, I had left the practice of law for a reason,” he said. “I couldn’t remember what the reason was, but I knew that there must have been a reason.”
He says it was good luck that two founders of JAMS’ San Francisco office � former Bay Area judges Coleman Fannin and Daniel Weinstein � read about his resignation in the newspaper.
“They out of the blue gave me a call,” he said. “I didn’t know who either of them were.” But, he added, “it sounded like something I’d like to do. And it was the best decision I’ve made in my life.”
Since then, JAMS, partially due to the early credibility brought by those state judges, has become the West Coast’s preeminent � and probably most profitable � mediation provider.
Bettinelli is now in his third year as the company’s chairman, a post he took over from Fannin. In that position, he’s had to deal with touchy policy issues � for example, a controversy over whether to honor arbitration contracts that prohibit class actions.
And Bettinelli still handles a full load of cases as a neutral. He charges $7,000 a day, but there’s no shortage of demand.
Yet unlike many of the neutrals who charge similar rates, the bulk of his caseload these days isn’t big-money class actions, business breakups or construction disputes.
For the last two years, most of Bettinelli’s time has been spent mediating sex abuse claims against Catholic clergy, a seemingly endless pursuit that’s fraught with difficult issues, ranging from the age of alleged transgressions to the fact that many victims are seeking something other than money.
“To say that they’re extraordinarily complex is an understatement,” said Paul Gaspari, a partner at Tobin & Tobin in San Francisco who represents church entities in clergy abuse cases. “To a very large extent, in terms of the law, there are a lot of issues of first impression.”
He said that in one case, Bettinelli pushed through a settlement “by the sheer force of his personality,” persuading parties to continue negotiating even after they thought an agreement was impossible.
Richard Simons, a Hayward-based plaintiff lawyer who has handled clergy and personal injury cases, has had similar experiences.
“I think he is more actively engaged than some mediators which, because of his abilities, works well,” Simons said. In particular, he added, Bettinelli will spend considerably more time talking to the clients than most mediators will.
“He’s a very personable fellow,” Simons said. “He can interpret what lawyers are saying for the normal person.”
In the first case where he hired Bettinelli, Simons represented a woman with three young children whose husband had been killed in a motorcycle crash.
“In that case, he not only talked to my lady, the widow, in a really nice way,” Simons said, but did the same for the insurance adjustor. In the end, he said, the parties settled and his client thanked Bettinelli for setting up a lifetime trust for her infant daughter.
“He’s very people-oriented in a way that a lot of us aren’t,” he added.
When he discusses mediating, Bettinelli talks about focusing on the motives and interests that go beyond money, especially in the clergy cases.
“It’s an area where the themes of mediation are very important: the expression of feeling, the catharsis of releasing of anger,” he said. “Individuals need to be heard, the church needs to be heard. We’re often dealing with bishops who weren’t around when incidents occurred.”
That’s especially true in the Alaska clergy cases that have been taking up much of his time this year. Last month, he spent two days flying to remote native villages and talking to people who say they were victimized by priests.
“It wasn’t really a mediation joint session, but it was going there and listening,” he said. That’s the first step in settlement talks, he added, but he said the bulk of the work happens on the other end, pressuring people to keep talking if they don’t work out a deal right away.
“I’m very tenacious. I’m very active in follow-up. I’m consistently phoning people in cases that don’t resolve,” he said.
In doing so, Bettinelli said, his motivation is meeting the challenge of reconciling a seemingly impossible case.
“I do get personally involved in what I do. I just take personally the requirement that I help,” he said. “For most people I see, the outcome or result is the most important thing in their life.”
You can order past judicial profiles of more than 100 Bay Area judges here or by calling 415-749-5406.