Richard H. Breiner February 28, 1935 – February 26, 2022 A longtime pillar in the Marin County legal community, having been a lawyer for 17 years and a judge on the Superior Court for 20 years, Judge Richard H. Breiner (“Dick” to his friends) died suddenly at home on February 26, 2022. Dick was a mensch who was loved, cherished, and respected beyond measure. He was totally devoted to his family and friends. Dick was born in 1935 to Jimmy and Fannie Breiner, immigrants from Croatia and Ukraine, respectively, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1946 the family moved to University City, Missouri, where Jimmy and Fannie founded and ran Breiner’s Bakery. Dick attended University City High School and Washington University before transferring to the University of Missouri in Columbia. He received his B.A. in history from the University of Missouri in 1957 (Phi Beta Kappa), and his Juris Doctor from the same university in 1961, where he was elected to the Law Review. As an ROTC graduate, he served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Fort Ord, California, and in South Korea. In 1959 Dick met Dorothy (“Dottie”) Landau in college and they wed in October 1960. They moved to San Francisco shortly after Dick’s law school graduation in 1961. In San Francisco, Dick first worked for the U.S. Department of Labor, and then as an associate for Gladstein, Andersen, Leonard & Sibbett. In 1963, he and Dottie moved to Marin County. In 1964, Dick answered a nationwide call from CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) for lawyers from around the country to go to Mississippi and take depositions of Blacks in that state who were not allowed to register to vote, resulting in losses for the newly formed Freedom Democratic party. He bravely went to Mississippi, enduring threats on his life while there. The depositions were bound and delivered to the House of Representatives, and it is believed that those depositions helped facilitate the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. In 1965 Dick joined Bob Conn and others in a private law practice in San Rafael, handling business, real estate, personal injury, criminal, and family law matters. Dick specialized in municipal and land use law. Bob and Dick developed a very close friendship; Bob was influential on Dick’s life in every way. In the 1970s, Bob Birkie, Gary Ragghianti, and Art Lusse joined the firm. Among the highlights of his career as a lawyer, Dick played a part (along with Bob Conn, Bob Praetzel, Marty Rosen, Doug Ferguson, and others) in stopping Marincello, a proposed city the size of Novato, from being built in the Marin Headlands, in what is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Dick served as Deputy Public Defender for the County of Marin from 1965 to 1970. He also served as the Deputy City Attorney for the Town of Tiburon from 1965 to 1977, the City Attorney for the Town of Belvedere from 1976 to 1977, and Special Counsel for the Cities of San Rafael, Sausalito, Mill Valley, and Ross. He was also President of the Marin County Bar Association in 1977. Dick was appointed to the Marin County Superior Court in 1977 by Governor Jerry Brown. He served as the Presiding Judge of the Marin County Superior Court from 1980-1981, 1985, 1987-1988, and 1993. He also served as Associate Judge Pro Tem on the California Court of Appeal in 1983, as Associate Justice Pro Tem for the California Supreme Court in 1985, and Presiding Judge for the Marin County Superior Court Appellate Court in 1982 and 1984. He was re-elected to the Superior Court without opposition in 1978, 1984, and 1990. While on the bench, Judge Breiner had a reputation for being fair and respectful to everyone who entered his courtroom. One illustration of that: after his catastrophic stroke in 1995, he received many get-well cards from prisoners in San Quentin who’d been sentenced by him. The rapper Tupac Shakur, who once was a defendant in Judge Breiner’s courtroom, promised him that he would write a song about the judge. Judge Breiner heard many famous cases in his career, including a case involving a felon named Archie Fain, whose parole was revoked by the Board of Prison Terms due to public outcry. Fain sought a writ of habeas corpus and Judge Breiner courageously granted the writ and wrote the following in a 16-page opinion: “Unlike the Roman circus, where the roar of the crowd would determine the life or death of the gladiator, our community cannot survive without rules.” Those rules, he said, “cannot be applied based on popular sentiment.” Perhaps his most famous criminal trial was the Mitchell Brothers case, a case involving fratricide between two infamous San Francisco pornographers. During his judicial tenure he was the Chairman of the California Judicial Council Advisory Committee on Local Rules; co-founder, Benchmaster, and President of the McFetridge American Inns of Court; member of the California Trial Lawyers Association; and member of the California Judges Association (Executive Board, Secretary-Treasurer, Vice-President, Chairman of the Judicial Ethics Committee, and Chair of the Code of Judicial Conducts Committee Revision). Everyone who knew Dick appreciated his wit, his sense of humor, modesty, generosity, compassion, and authenticity. Even in the courtroom, he managed to lighten the atmosphere with humor and levity. Those in the legal field lauded him for his brilliance in the law. He was a mentor to many and an inspiration to dozens of young people pursuing work in the legal field. There was nothing more important to Dick than his family. He was a loving husband and father of his two children, Dan and Deborah. The family traveled to many places, including Europe, Hawaii, Mexico, and all over the U.S. He was very proud of his children’s accomplishments and always supportive of their pursuits. Dick was also very proud and supportive of Dottie’s civic involvement, including her role as a San Rafael City Councilmember and Vice Mayor. Dick was an avid biker, runner, and skier and enjoyed these activities with his close friends, two of whom, Gary Ragghianti and Henry Lasky, were his regular ski companions and among his closest lifelong friends. Dick was an active member of Congregation Rodef Sholom. He served as its president in 1968 and remained involved on the board for many years after that. Other community involvement included the following: trustee of Big Brothers of Marin; founding member and director/treasurer of the Marin County Park and Open Space Foundation; director of the Marin County Drug Abuse Advisory committee; member of the Board of Directors at the Branson School; member of the Board of Trustees of the Marin County Law Library; director of the Marin County Criminal Justice Coordinating Commission; member of the Santa Sabina Center Lay Advisory Council; member of the Family Law Center Advisory Board; and member of the Board of the YMCA. As a judge, he officiated dozens of weddings and presided over many adoptions, and couples praised him for the time he took to spend with them, getting to know them, and for supporting their families. In 1995 Dick suffered a near-fatal, massive hemorrhagic stroke while bicycling on Mount Tamalpais with his regular Saturday bike group. Dick’s treating neurologist said that his brain bleed was the biggest bleed he’d seen in his career, and he said that Dick would never walk again or work again. Dick couldn’t speak for months, nor could he breathe or swallow on his own for a long time. He spent four months at a rehabilitation hospital, working hard to improve his physical and mental abilities. When he went home, Dick still couldn’t walk. He didn’t want to spend the money for the stairlift that he needed to be able to go upstairs where the kitchen and his bedroom were; he said that he’d be able to walk again. True to form, with a lot of physical therapy, determination, and a lifelong personal philosophy to never give up, he was walking again in less than a year, although he was paralyzed on his left side for the rest of his life. Dick said in an interview, after having been largely confined to a wheelchair, that “We never know how much strength we have…until we are tested.” While he lost the ability to enjoy his favorite physical activities, he never gave up trying to regain mobility and regularly went to the Jewish Community Center and SF Fitness to work out with his favorite trainers, Jay Elliott, Mark Stoker, and Todd Mikolajczyk. When confined to home due to Covid, he did what he could there, assisted and encouraged by his devoted and skillful care aide Nicky Magat, who steadfastly helped him for 25 years. Everyone close to the family knew how influential and encouraging Nicky was in Dick’s life. Dick was further weakened by pneumonia and advanced kidney disease in the summer of 2021 but that did not dim his enthusiasm or love of life. He was very grateful for all the excellent care he received from the medical community over the years. After Dick’s stroke, despite the prediction that he’d never work again, he went back on the bench. He heard motions several days each week, and eventually retired in 1997. After his retirement, he worked as a mediator and arbitrator for Resolution Remedies for many years. Dick received many awards, including Outstanding Graduate of the class of 1961 by the University of Missouri Law School Phi Delta Phi Legal Fraternity, and the California Judges Association President’s Award in 1992 for outstanding service to the California Judiciary. He was also honored by the Marin Family and Children’s Law Center, and he received (along with Dottie) the Bunny Luchetta Award from the Marin County League of Women Voters in recognition of their outstanding public service. Dick was also awarded the Legal Aid Community Service Award in 2004 and he was honored by the Consumer Attorneys of Marin for his outstanding record of professional service and contribution to the legal community and the State of California. In 2012, Dick was awarded the first ever Marin County Bar Association Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was again honored by the Legal Aid of Marin in 2019 (along with Dottie) with the Legal Legend Award for their support of Legal Aid and social justice. Dick was predeceased by his parents, his brothers Marvin and Shelly, and his sister Judy. He is survived by Dottie, his son Dan (Hongjun), daughter Deborah (John), and grandchildren Tao and Benjamin. He is also survived by sisters-in-law Harriett Michael and Mimi Breiner, brother-in-law John Michael, and nieces and nephews Jerry Breiner, Sharon Waltrip, Rod David (Wendy), David Breiner (Sharie), Donna David, Michelle Breiner Driskill-Smith (Alex), Dan Michael (Lillian), Cynthia Michael Pascal (Greg), and Lisa Michael Burns (Jon). Memorial donations may be made to Congregation Rodef Sholom, the SF-Marin Food Bank, or the ACLU. The family had a private burial on March 1, 2022. A celebration of life will be held in the future.
Published by Marin Independent Journal from Mar. 8 to Mar. 13, 2022.