David George Sills

David Sills

March 21, 1938 - August 23, 2011
Judge, Orange County Superior Court, 1985-1990
Presiding Justice, Court of Appeal, 4th District, Division 3, 1990-2011

David G. (Dave) Sills was a native of Peoria, Illinois, where his father was an engineer for Caterpillar. Sills wanted to be a lawyer since was he was in the fifth grade.

Sills first came to Orange County in the 1950s for a Boy Scout “jamboree,” then later returned in 1962 while on active duty in the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, where he eventually attained the rank of captain. While there, he led his own armored company.

Sills majored in political science at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois and earned his law degree from the University of Illinois in 1961. After concluding active duty with the Marines in 1965, he started a successful private law practice in Newport Beach.

Sills served four separate terms as mayor of the City of Irvine in the 1970s and 1980s before Governor George Deukmejian appointed him to the bench, first to the Orange County Superior Court in 1985, and five years later as Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal. When asked why anyone would want the burdens of being a presiding justice, Sills, 52, responded, “It was the only job they offered me.”

During his 20-plus years on the appellate bench, Sills gained statewide recognition for his opinions and contributions to various areas of the law. He authored more than 2,400 majority opinions, almost 400 of which were certified for publication.

Sills was one of the first jurists to tackle legal issues relating to surrogacy (In re Marriage of Moschetta (1994) 25 Cal.App.4th 1218; In re Marriage of Buzzanca (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 1410), allowing this form of parentage to acquire legal recognition.

Sills drafted the opinion in a widely publicized guardianship case, ruling the trial court should have considered evidence regarding the father’s role in the mother’s death. “Judges cannot avoid the single most important and relevant issue in a case . . . just because trying that issue will take time. The standard is whether the consumption of time is ‘undue.’” (Guardianship of Simpson (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 914.)

Sills wrote extensively on tort duties of care in cases like Askew v. Askew (1994) 22 Cal.App.4th 942 [husband cannot sue wife in tort for falsely claiming she loved him] and Lawson v. Management Activities, Inc. (1999) 69 Cal.App.4th 652 [unhurt bystanders cannot sue for negligent infliction of emotional distress caused by witnessing plane crash].) “Scratch a great legal problem and you are likely to find a great philosophical problem,” he mused.

Sills opened courtrooms to public scrutiny by prohibiting a common practice for closed-session judicial rulings with no showing on the record.  (In re Marriage of Hall (2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 313 [“Child support orders . . . must be seen by each parent as the result of a fair and reasonable process, not an arbitrary decision done in a corner]”.) “The moral to the story is that haste makes a lower affirmance rate.” (Panico v. Truck Ins. Exchange (2001) 90 Cal.App.4th 1294, 1296.)

In 1997, Sills pioneered a teleconferencing program for oral argument, permitting counsel to present their arguments from the Fourth Appellate District’s Division One in San Diego - about 130 miles away.

Sills was instrumental in the construction of the new appellate courthouse in Santa Ana, working for a decade to gain authorization and funding. The building won an award of merit in the government/public category of California Construction’s Best of 2009.

Sills and the appellate bar had a mutual respect for one another. In In re Marriage of Shaban (2001) 88 Cal.App.4th 398, Sills firmly rejected the notion that experienced appellate practitioners should just recycle the work of trial lawyers: “Rather than being a rehash of trial level points and authorities, the appellate brief offers counsel probably their best opportunity to craft work of original, professional, and, on occasion, literary value.”

Sills’ legal opinions are noteworthy not just for groundbreaking issues, but for their literary and cultural allusions, ranging from Yogi Berra to Boren’s First Law of Bureaucracy to Shakespeare. (See, e.g., City of Stanton v. Cox (1989) 207 Cal.App.3d 1557 [“‘The umpire ain’t ruled until he’s ruled’”]; Wilson v. City of Laguna Beach (1992) 6 Cal.App.4th 543 [“When in doubt, mumble”]); Great West Contractors, Inc. v. Irvine Unified Sch. Dist. (2010) 187 Cal.App.4th 1425 [“It doesn’t take Hamlet to figure out that something rotten happened in this case”].)

In October 2010, Sills was awarded the inaugural David G. Sills Award for Appellate Excellence by the Orange County Bar Association.

Sills’ final published judicial decision, McGill v. Superior Court (2011) Cal.App.4th 1454, contained a sweeping primer on grand jury procedure, beginning with the reign of England’s Henry II. McGill rejected “the ‘ham sandwich’ view of grand jury procedure.” “[G]rand juries are supposed to play a protective, buffer role . . . .”

Sills was an avid woodworker and cabinet maker, amateur runner, and had an extensive collection of first edition books in politics and history, his principle areas of study.

Sills died in August 2011 from cancer at the age of 73. His colleague, Justice Bill Bedsworth remarked on his legacy, “Rooms got warmer and brighter when Dave Sills walked into them. People got better. Problems seemed smaller. As long as Dave Sills was in charge, you knew the helm was tended, the ship was on course.”

At a memorial service, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye paid tribute not only to Sills but also to the “courage and compassion” of his wife, Susan. “Because all of us know that a hero in public life, a hero on the courts, and a hero in our U.S. armed services, always has another hero; and we know that, throughout it, it was you, Susan.”

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