By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Clad in surf shorts and flippers, Rene Chouteau stands on the edge of the Russian River, eyeing the gently moving water as it sparkles in the afternoon sun.
Without warning, the presiding judge of Sonoma County Superior Court launches himself into a shallow dive and swims upstream in a steady crawl.
“It’s pretty nice,” Chouteau said a few minutes later as he hauled himself out on a gray boulder.
Fighting the current near his Alexander Valley home is part of a regular workout routine for Chouteau, an avid surfer and outdoorsman who at 68 years old is more buff than many men half his age. The river flow serves as a kind of backyard resistance pool to keep him trim.
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But lately, the square-jawed jurist has been going against a different tide — public opinion. This summer, he led the bench in adopting a controversial ban on courthouse protests, proselytizing and other “expressive activities” that were deemed disruptive.
The order — which included a dress code prohibiting miniskirts and sagging pants — came at the request of the Sheriff’s Office, which sought a written policy that its bailiffs could enforce to minimize disturbances, protect jurors and instill a sense of decorum.
Instead, it drew sharp criticism from free-speech and labor advocates who denounced it as an infringement on individual rights. Some argued courthouse protests were a cherished American tradition, while others claimed the dress code was needlessly archaic and outdated.
Amid a series of scathing letters to the editor, including one from a recently retired judge, Chouteau rescinded the order. He conceded the wording was unclear and vowed to seek public input before returning with a new policy.
Like his resistance training regimen in the Russian River, Chouteau says he’s has emerged from the experience a sturdier soul.
“Anytime you encounter adversity, you learn from it, and it certainly does make you more sensitive and perhaps stronger,” Chouteau said. “In fact, throughout my life I’ve learned much more from my mistakes than my successes.”
Colleagues on the bench said the shift was indicative of Chouteau’s willingness to listen to all sides and change his opinion if persuaded. Judge Gary Medvigy, who helped draft the order Chouteau ultimately signed, said it is a measure of Chouteau’s strong leadership and open mind.
“He very much cared about what was being said and took it to heart,” Medvigy said.
Others in the legal field echoed the sentiments, saying Chouteau is nothing if not an independent thinker.
Santa Rosa criminal defense attorney Chris Andrian, who grew up with Chouteau in San Francisco’s Richmond District and has been around him through most of his career, said Chouteau always has been considerate of other views and defies cookie-cutter comparisons.
“I have known this man for most of my life,” Andrian said. “He’s always been a unique person who marches to his own drummer. And he’s a very fair-minded judge.”
Rene Auguste Chouteau — a descendant and namesake of the French-American founder of St. Louis, Mo. — has been hearing the public’s concerns in a career spanning more than 40 years.
Before his appointment to the bench in 2001 by Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, Chouteau was Santa Rosa’s city attorney for more than 18 years. As chief legal adviser to the City Council, his office helped push through initiatives in public housing, community policing and city revitalization.
He was a lawyer for the Sonoma County Office of Education for six years before joining the city staff, and started his government service two years out of Stanford law school as a deputy city attorney in his hometown, San Francisco.
“I considered myself one of the luckiest guys anywhere to be part of this office that Rene created” with his hiring decisions, said former Santa Rosa city attorney Brien Farrell, who was hired by Chouteau in 1984 and took over his job when he got the judgeship. “He is a fine lawyer and an outstanding judge. Even from lawyers who haven’t won all their cases in front of Rene, I hear high praise.”
Law is a family tradition for Chouteau. His father and maternal grandfather were lawyers in a San Francisco firm started by his great-grandfather, Edward Young, in the 1880s. His son, Chris Chouteau of Healdsburg, also is a lawyer.
Chouteau hung out at his father’s firm when he was a boy, working the office switchboard and listening to stories about trials and colorful, big-city characters.
“That always interested me,” he said. “I was fascinated by the trial process.”
Holidays often were spent at the family’s vacation home on the Russian River near Monte Rio. That’s where a young Chouteau developed a passion for swimming, hunting, fishing and backpacking.
“I spent my youth on the river and in the ocean,” said Chouteau, pointing to old photos hanging on the walls of his courthouse office. “I have memories of the river going back to the ’40s.”
Eventually, he became a surfer, traveling the California coast with his son in search of big waves. Of the dozen or so surfboards in his Alexander Valley garage, he favors a custom 10-footer made by Johnny Rice of Santa Cruz.
“When I was growing up in the ’60s it was all long boards,” he said.
His father and grandfather died about the time he was getting out of law school, so Chouteau worked briefly in two other Bay Area firms before becoming a city attorney. He said he was drawn to the public sector for the opportunity to advance the interests of an entire community rather than an individual client.
He views the law as central to a democratic government. “It just seems to be the framework for the way our democracy is different than other forms of government,” Chouteau said. “I enjoy having the public for a client.”
A dozen years ago, Chouteau realized a lifelong dream when he was appointed to the Superior Court bench. As a judge, he’s dabbled in a bit of everything, sitting in criminal, family law and civil courtrooms.
“I always wanted to be a judge,” he said. “It’s been great. I can’t imagine a better job.”
Last year, he started a two-year stint as presiding judge, a position that pays an annual salary of $177,000. In addition to handling drug, DUI and eviction courts, he serves in an administrative role for 20 other judges, two commissioners and 178 clerical employees. The court handles about 100,000 civil and criminal case filings a year.
His tenure has been hampered by cutbacks at the state level that have frozen hiring and reduced the court’s budget over four years from $28 million to about $19 million, he said.
He’s also been on a panel dealing with an unprecedented shift of state prisoners to local control.
Along the way, he’s been a strong advocate for building a new courthouse in Sonoma County and serves on key Judicial Council committees that make budget and policy recommendations for the state court system.
He’s chairman of a committee that has proposed reducing jury size from 12 to eight people in civil and misdemeanor cases. The committee also is suggesting a reduction in the number of peremptory challenges allowed by attorneys in jury selection.
Both jury proposals, which are meant to save time and money, would require legislative action to become law. They’ve generated much controversy, exposing Chouteau to additional criticism, and are expected to face stiff opposition from attorney associations.
Chouteau said it has always been his goal to streamline government workings and save taxpayer dollars. As top judge, he’s pushing to resolve more cases each year and discourage continuances. “I want public entities to be efficient and provide service to people at a reasonable cost,” he said.
Jose Guillen, Sonoma County Superior Court’s executive officer, said Chouteau has been active in his Judicial Council role since taking over from former presiding Judge Gary Nadler.
Guillen and Chouteau attend frequent meetings together at the council headquarters in San Francisco and go to the state Capitol to discuss the budget and other matters with lawmakers. The pair often talk in Guillen’s native tongue, Spanish, and Chouteau — who has been an open-water swimmer for decades — has persuaded Guillen to go along with him on several early morning dips in the ocean.
Guillen wasn’t the first colleague to swim with Chouteau. Farrell said in his first month on the job Chouteau persuaded him to take a dip in the chilly San Francisco Bay on the way to an early morning meeting in the city. He ended up doing it about 20 times.
“I thought it would kill me,” Guillen said. “He’s a fearless leader in all kinds of ways. He has a sense of humanity and humility, but he’s not at all afraid to make the tough decisions.”
Rescinding the courthouse protest ban and dress code was one of those tough calls. The judges began crafting it two years ago under Nadler with the goal of reducing juror exposure to extremist political groups distributing leaflets and religious fundamentalists who prayed outside courtrooms. It evolved to include a dress code that banned gang attire and revealing clothing that was deemed inappropriate.
After several revisions, it was approved in August by an executive committee of the Sonoma County Superior Court bench and signed by Chouteau.
Among other things, it banned picketing and preaching within 25 feet of the outside entrances to the Hall of Justice, which included the central courtyard and part of the courthouse steps.
Critics blasted the new rules, calling them unfair and unconstitutional. Chouteau was singled out for saying the courthouse wasn’t a “free speech forum.”
Recently retired Judge Mark Tansil called it an unnecessary and bureaucratic order that degraded the “essential expectation” that the courthouse was the one public location where citizens could air civil liberties disputes.
“In a time when civil liberties are waning, it’s incredible that court officials would issue a speech ban,” he wrote in a letter published in The Press Democrat. “The obvious solution is to strike the offensive ban.”
After a meeting with the American Civil Liberties Union in which he maintained he wasn’t trying to stifle free expression, Chouteau called the other judges and pulled the plug. He said groups such as the Sonoma County Bar Association and the ACLU would be consulted for any future policy.
“The public response influenced us,” Chouteau said. “It pointed out the weaknesses in the order.”
Steve Fabian, a longtime Santa Rosa defense attorney and member of the local ACLU chapter, gave Chouteau credit for the decision.
“I think the process was deeply flawed and the results were deeply flawed,” Fabian said. “At least he recognized it and was willing to meet with the critics, listen to objections and act on the objections to withdraw it.”
These days, when he’s not on the bench or presiding over a drug court graduation ceremony, Chouteau relaxes with his wife of 43 years, Susan, and their greyhound, Sugar Ray, at their home off Chalk Hill Road. The converted hunting lodge, which they bought in the 1970s, is steps from the river and is where they raised their son and daughter, Anna, who lives in St. Helena. The children attended Healdsburg public schools.
The judge has been active in the Alexander Valley community, serving on the local school board and teaching English classes to farmworker families. His wife is a school bilingual coordinator. The couple tend a huge vegetable garden and serve homemade gazpacho to visitors.
Two or three times a week Chouteau finds time for a swim, either in a pool near the courthouse or in the river. It keeps him in shape, but also clears his head after a day listening to legal arguments or wrangling with state officials over the court budget.
“It’s a time to reflect on things and get away from the distractions,” Chouteau said. “It makes me more effective.”
(You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)