Call Me “Coley”: Reminiscing About Judge Coleman Fannin

Close your eyes and imagine it’s 1973: bell bottoms, overlong sideburns, McGovern in the rearview and Watergate just over the horizon. Imagine further (and this may be a stretch) that you’re Mark Simons, a newly-minted public defender. You’re heading to your first felony pretrial conference in front of the emperor of Department 11, Coley Fannin, the most recent appointee to our Superior Court, who had actually volunteered to do the criminal calendar.

You’ve done the math to prepare for the conference: derived the square root of the product of A and B, where A equals the strength of the prosecution case and B equals the degree of your client’s unsavory past. And most importantly, you’ve arrived at the correct answer, felony probation. Then the conference in chambers begins. Both sides present their positions and Judge Fannin dictates into a microphone: “People v. Smith, three counts of armed robbery. People’s position… state prison. Defense position… felony probation, which is foolish, a waste of our time. My position is state prison. Next case.”

Coley was a force of nature, and you could get blown over in heavy weather. Exceptionally bright, frequently brusque, he had high expectations that inspired me. While no one anticipated a sweetheart deal or even gentle treatment, the criminal law and motion part of his assignment was a revelation. If your motion to suppress was well-researched and well-written, he noticed. And if it actually had merit, he’d grant it; the non-default position in many departments. Not with a heart-to-heart pep talk, but with an occasional win to reward a meritorious motion, Coley motivated me to do the best job I could.

In my public defender career, I had one case that went to the California Supreme Court and created a defendant’s limited right to a lineup. In his earlier ruling denying my motion, Coley had waxed eloquent about the trial judge’s need for discretion to grant such a motion and said if he had that discretion, he would exercise it. Though his ruling had far more to do with the Supreme Court’s ultimate decision than anything I wrote, I never passed up the opportunity to remind him of the reversal.

I have no doubt other lawyers of my vintage were similarly inspired to do their best by Coley’s expectation of excellence.

After my appointment to the Municipal Court in 1980, Coley and I kept in touch, and his confidence in me was a frequent boost to my confidence in myself.

With Coley, the sunny days far outnumbered the stormy ones. At social events no one was more gregarious. In court, his amazing ties, crafted by his wife, Arlene, reflected his engaging personality. Outside the courtroom, Coley was quite competitive. Several of us loved playing racquetball with him and always obeyed rule number one: DO NOT find yourself anywhere between him and the ball.
Coley’s contribution to our legal community far exceeds his influence on one young lawyer/judge. He served on our Superior Court for 16 years and became legendary as a settlement judge. He served on the executive board of the California Judges Association and received numerous honors, including being chosen as the California Judge of the Year by the CTLA. He was a critical factor in JAMS becoming a state-wide, then national, then international powerhouse in mediation. And he still found time to coach the Acalanes mock trial team.

If you dug even a little beneath Coley’s combative exterior, you found a terrific human being. He and Arlene raised five wonderful children, including Jill, who recently served as our presiding judge. After retiring from JAMS a dozen years ago, Coley devoted himself to caring for Arlene, who suffers from macular degeneration. And, the great value he placed on friendship was evident and once touched me. Some years ago a lawyer from Seattle came to the Bay Area to mediate a case with Coley. That lawyer, Steve, had been my best friend in college, but we’d fallen out of touch. Somehow Coley pried out this fact, “ordered” him to get back in touch with me, and provided my number. Steve said he would call, but Coley clarified he was to do it then, immediately, and recessed the mediation.

If we’re lucky, we meet a person like Coley early in our lives, and benefit from that ever after. I had that good fortune.

May his memory be a blessing.