November 25, 2005

In life, on bench, judge proves man of resolve

Judge Robert J. Timlin exhibits strength in all facets of his life

By JERRY SOIFER / The Press-Enterprise

When it came to a crisis with his health, Robert J. Timlin, the Inland area's first federal district court judge, showed the same resolve as a law school graduate preparing for the bar exam.

Timlin, 73, was told last year by Dr. Donald Blackmon he was on the verge of developing diabetes. The Riverside doctor suggested that Timlin lose weight.

Timlin cut out doughnuts, cakes, pie, ice cream, pastries, candy and hot dogs. He shed 60 pounds in six months to weigh 165 pounds. Blackmon said he was amazed by Timlin.

"Most patients can't do it," Blackmon said. "He was an exception."

"At my age, I didn't want to be laboring under diabetes," said Timlin.

The willpower Timlin used to improve his health is the same determination that has carried him through a legal career of almost 50 years, according to Timlin's wife, Caroline.

"He decided something and he does it," said Caroline Timlin, adding, "He wants to enjoy the rest of his life in good health."

Timlin and his wife will finally have a chance for extended travel and leisure. The Timlins are selling the Corona home they bought in 1967, where they raised their children, Patrick, 38, and Sally, 37, to live in their second home in Carpenteria near Santa Barbara.

Timlin isn't putting his gavel and robe in mothballs, however. He retired as a full-time judge on Feb. 1 to become a senior-status judge with a limited calendar. He will move his work from Riverside to Los Angeles.

"Some psychologist might say you're so wedded to your work that you couldn't handle leaving your work abruptly," he said. "Maybe this is a subconscious weaning away form judging. ... I still enjoy it. I'm still capable of doing it physically and hopefully mentally."

Timlin has been admired by the legal community during his rise from city attorney for Corona and Norco to the municipal bench in Corona, the superior court in Riverside, the state appellate court to the federal court.

"He's one of the finest, if not the finest jurist, we've ever had in Riverside," said retired Superior Court Judge Victor Miceli. "He has the perfect temperament to be a jurist. He would be very firm in spite of what appears to be an avuncular demeanor. Beneath that demeanor, he was very strong. He was one of the most intelligent jurists I've had the pleasure of serving with."

Timlin frequently declined lunch invitations from Superior Court Judge Stephen Cunnison to work at the noon hour.

"He's an excellent legal scholar," said Cunnison of Timlin, adding, "He puts in unbelievable hours."

Retired Riverside County Chief Deputy Sheriff Sam Lowery said of Timlin, "He's the kind of guy who should be on the state supreme court. He's just a great guy, very bright."

Timlin's political neutrality on the bench has never been questioned. He was appointed to the state appellate court by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian and to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat.

"Bob is not a partisan guy," said Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, who grew up down the street from the Timlin home. "Anybody who knows him knows you don't pigeon-hole him in one partisan way or another. He's a guy whom you would never question his ethics or his honor. He's exhibited that from day one. He's someone everyone respects and everyone likes."

Timlin wasn't sure where the law would take him after he graduated from Georgetown University law center with a juris doctor degree in 1959. He tried his hand in the U.S. Department of Justice, in corporate law with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and private practice in Riverside.

Timlin found his niche on the bench. He said he enjoyed being a judge more than any other aspect of the law "maybe because I don't have to be an advocate. ... I think I fit better as a neutral, as they say ... sitting back, listening to the evidence, applying the law ... I don't get emotionally involved in the cases ... I enjoy the minutiae of the law and the spirit of the law."

Timlin also enjoyed the courtroom drama. "There's a real human dynamic going on all the time," he said. "You get exposed to every phase of life. ... You've got to have an inquisitive mind. You want to be a really nosy person."

Timlin said he developed the discipline to be a judge by studying Latin and Greek at a Jesuit high school in Washington, D.C. The judicial workload kept him home in Corona on many weekends, laboring at the Corona Public Library working on cases while his wife was in Carpenteria. There were breaks to watch Notre Dame football games and Georgetown and Lakers basketball games on television. His office staff once gave him Lakers tickets at Staples Center as a Christmas gift.

Timlin talks about sports while waiting to get a haircut at Angelo Lunetta's barber shop in the Corona mall. Lunetta said Timlin never put on an air of self-importance. Lunetta said some of his customers were shocked to hear the man they were talking to is a judge.

Caroline Timlin said her husband would have been a good priest. He is a practicing Catholic who attends Mass weekly, frequently at St. Edward Church, his parish in Corona.

"A church is a church is a church," said Timlin. "Their parishioners might be low wage earners, people who aren't at the top of society. When you walk in that church there's no difference between a ( U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin) Scalia and a hardworking father with six kids there. We're all the same. We all start out the same. We all leave the same."

Timlin has no trouble separating church and state on the bench. In fact, he said his faith enables him to do a better job.

"You've taken an oath," he said. "You're serving your God by doing a proper job making decisions within the civil arena. ... That might be a contradiction to religious teachings. That's your job to do it so you do it and indirectly you're serving society as a whole."

In July 2002, Timlin showed his ability to separate church and state when he ruled that a 6-foot cross in the Mojave National Preserve must be removed.

"The presence of the cross on federal land conveys a message of endorsement of religion," Timlin wrote in his opinion.

Last April, Timlin ruled that a land swap plan that would have preserved the cross was unconstitutional.

Miceli said Timlin's rulings in the case showed his courage. "It showed the inner strength of the man," Miceli said. "He had to feel that there was going to be a tremendous amount of discontent with and even anger with this. A judge cannot rule on the basis of trying to please people."