Last week, I attended the memorial services for Jim Giller, a remarkable attorney who practiced law for nearly 60 years and served as the President of the Alameda County Bar Association in 1976. I knew a little about Jim – I had lunch with Jim and Spencer on a number of occasions, and he had explained to me in detail his role in the creation of the Court Appointed Attorney Program (CAAP – the indigent criminal defense panel that handles cases where the Public Defender has a conflict) back in the 1970’s. He had been an active member of the CAAP panel, and the CAAP Advisory Committee, until quite soon before his passing. I knew that he was a well-respected criminal defense attorney and a very funny guy.
But it turns out, of course, that people have so many more sides to them than what most of us get to see. I knew a fair bit about his professional career (though I certainly learned more) – but I really didn’t know much about his family life, and how beloved he was (to such a large clan). Similarly, Jim’s daughter-in-law said to me, “We knew Jim as a father, grandfather, cousin and uncle – we had no idea the depth of his involvement in the legal community, or the extent of his reputation there!” This is, in many ways, what a memorial service does: it gives us all, for the first time, a rounded picture of someone we thought we knew.
So here’s some of what I learned about Jim Giller.
Remember how I said he was funny? Well, it turns out that’s a familial trait. His son, instead of giving a eulogy, did an “exit review” for his dad, complete with a power point covering strengths, and “areas for improvement.” (Among both the strengths and the areas for improvement we heard about singing – Jim was enthusiastic but not skilled – and humor –“Giller humor” was not appreciated by everyone.) We also heard from an elderly cousin (“If you can’t hear me, raise your hand”). Jim came from a clan some thirty strong, originally in Minnesota, and he was clearly beloved.
The “other side”
One of the fascinating things I learned about Jim was his many deep friendships with prosecutors. Given how devoted he was to criminal defense, I would have expected him to reject consorting with the “other side,” as we often see today. But Jim was well-loved on both sides of the courtroom, and his son Scott spoke with surprise about how many of those DA’s came to visit his father in his failing months. One of his closest friends was Judge Stuart Hing, who was a DA for many years before being appointed to the bench. Jim and Judge Hing rode bikes together, went out to dinner together, and gossiped together. (Judge Hing told us that the saying was, or should have been, “telephone, telegraph, or tell Jim and Stuart.”) They also got into scrapes together – Judge Hing talked about when they were in Jim’s car together, and Jim hit a police car and caused minor damage. As he tried to back away from the collision point, Jim very nearly hit the car again – this time with the officer standing right there. I also loved the story about Jim arriving more than an hour late for a dinner with Judge Hing and other friends. He explained that he was stopped by a police officer for a minor infraction, and the officer asked him “Would you mind telling me what happened?” Jim sighed, and said, “Would it do any good?” This did not sit well with the officer.
The Giller Test
Jim Giller was devoted to the law. His son Jeff reminded us of the maxim that no one ever said, on his death bed, I wish I’d spent more time at work – actually, he said, this was truly how his dad felt. Jim practiced until his health wouldn’t allow him to continue, and even then, Jeff says, they had to drag him kicking and screaming away from his practice. He was a true believer.
Jim tried fourteen capital cases and, according to one speaker, only one of those clients was sentenced to death. Judge Hing described a brilliant closing statement that Jim delivered on behalf of one of those clients, where Jim asked the jury to imagine that the defendant had a heart attack, right here and now, in this courtroom. Would they want to call 911? If so, they must think that there is something worth saving in that defendant – and they should not sentence him to die. For years thereafter, as DA’s, now-judges Hing and Jacobson would ask themselves about other cases, “Could I pass the Giller test?”
There was a lot of love in that room, and respect, and humor. You could almost hear Jim, chiming in and correcting the stories as they came. What a fitting send-off for a complex, intelligent, loving – and yes, funny man. We will miss you, Jim.