Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Services Set for Court of Appeal Justice Thomas A. Harris
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
A memorial service for Justice Thomas A. Harris of the Fifth District Court of Appeal, who passed away last Wednesday, is scheduled for Dec. 12.
Justice Steven M. Vartabedian said his friend and colleague had been hospitalized since undergoing surgery in mid-May, and Presiding Justice James A. Ardaiz said in the last three weeks “we knew he wasn’t going to make it.”
The cause of death, as reported by the Fresno Bee, was an aortic aneurism.
Another friend, California Supreme Court Justice Marvin R. Baxter, recalled Harris as “an outstanding lawyer” and a “solid, respected jurist.”
The two men met in 1965 when they were both working as clerk investigators for the Fresno County District Attorney’s office, Baxter said. They both became deputy district attorneys for Fresno County, and then parted ways to enter private practice.
Harris joined his father, Everett Harris, at the firm of Harris & Harris, which was founded by Harris’ great-uncle, state Sen. Morris Bedford Harris, and Harris’ grandfather, Edgar Maxwell Harris.
He was appointed to the Fresno Municipal Court in 1985 by then-Gov. Deukmejian—filling a vacancy created by Ardaiz’s elevation to the Fresno Superior Court—and was elevated to the Superior Court two years later.
In 1990, Harris was appointed to the Fifth District Court of Appeal to succeed Baxter, who had been elevated to the Supreme Court by Deukmejian.
“He took over the chambers that I had,” Baxter explained.
As a jurist, Baxter said his friend was “very precise, very hardworking, very thoughtful.”
Vartabedian echoed the sentiment, calling Harris “someone who would always look for the specifics in a case, and not try to generalize.” He also praised Harris as “a team player,” “someone you could always talk to,” and “a really selfless individual.”
Harris was “very soft-spoken,” Vartabedian recalled. “He was not one who would be the center of attention, but what he said had a lot of weight…. when he said something it would go to the heart of the issue.”
Vartabedian opined that Harris “truly would look for the right result,” and “try to achieve justice under the law as it was presented to us.”
Ardaiz similarly praised Harris as a “man of steadfast loyalty and strong principles” who was “committed to the truth.”
He said Harris was most proud of an unpublished opinion Harris authored reversing a conviction of multiple child sexual abuse in In re Hubbard, because he doubted the truth of the children’s testimony because of the way in which it was obtained.
Harris had joined in an opinion affirming the conviction on direct appeal, Ardaiz explained, but had continued to nurse doubts about the reliability of the verdict. “Upon subsequent writ of habeas corpus, Justice Harris found vindication for his concerns and was outspoken in addressing what he felt was an injustice,” Ardaiz said.
But Ardaiz said what he remembers most about Harris was his distinctive laugh. “He didn’t joke a lot,” Ardaiz recalled, “but he would laugh. He just had this laugh, a giggle I guess you would call it, we’d all recognize it.”
As the end drew near, Ardaiz said, Harris was unable to speak and was on a respirator, but during a visit about a week before Harris’ death, something struck him as funny, and “he just started giggling,” Ardaiz said. “He couldn’t make any noise, but he just couldn’t stop laughing.”
Harris’ colleagues also praised Harris’ wry sense of humor. Vartabedian said he would miss the way Harris could “add humor to various situations we would come about without demeaning it in any way,” while retired Justice Nickolas J. Dibiaso, who served on the Court of Appeal with Harris for more than 15 years, said he would miss the way Harris’ wit “livened many an otherwise leaden legal discussion.”
Ardaiz said Harris’ passions were the law, his family, his cabin, and his car— a yellow 1956 Thunderbird which had belonged to Harris’ father. “That was his baby,” Ardaiz said. Vartabedian said Harris also enjoyed boating and spending time with his grandchildren.
“When he was in the hospital he loved having photographs and artwork of his grandchildren displayed around his hospital bed,” Vartabedian recalled. “It was quite fetching.”
Harris was also a USC football fan, and Ardaiz said, “if you wanted to jerk his chain, just talk to him about when Fresno State beat USC.”
Dibiaso said he was grateful to have spent many days with Harris during Harris’ illness watching the USC games.
Harris received an undergraduate degree from USC in 1961, and his law degree in 1964 from Stanford University School of Law.
He is survived by his wife, Judy Harris, two children and three grandchildren.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company