A former Mountain View mayor who went on to become a Superior Court judge retired last week, and 400 friends, family and colleagues gathered at his retirement party May 28 in his downtown San Jose courtroom.
"I think it is a shame to lose him as a judge," said lawyer Andrew Taber, who had tried land use cases under Nichols who was responsible for all lawsuits in Santa Clara County having to do with the California Environmental Quality Act, which often put him at odds with real estate developers.
"He would read thousands of pages," Taber said. "He was very diligent; he always rendered a quick decision."
Nichols, 68, was appointed to the Superior Court in 1984 after 17 years of having a private law practice in Palo Alto. This was the same year he was mayor in Mountain View and trying to raise two children. Of course there were a few "stressors," he said, but "it all turned out great."
Nichols was born in Illinois and grew up in Burlingame. He got his BA from Stanford, where he met his wife Anita, then went to the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. He would go on to be a law professor at Lincoln Law School.
Nichols' first job was with the San Mateo Legal Aid Society during the "war on poverty." He made $500 a month. He would go on to work on civil rights cases and once defended a man on death row.
"If you aspire to work for a big blue chip law firm you didn't get there by going to work for poverty law," Nichols said, explaining his dedication to public service. "You didn't get there by doing civil rights work."
When you are young, he added, "you do not immediately recognize the consequences of your decisions."
Nichols remembers the date Aug. 12, 1992 when Paul Salisbury shot his way through security at family court with a .357 magnum with the intent of killing Judge Nichols, who he partly blamed for tearing apart his family. "I would have shot the judge if nothing else worked," Salisbury reportedly told police after the shootout.
But Nichols didn't shrink away from his duties, and shortly after the shooting he took over a case from another judge who had been subjected to death threats.
Nichols has made controversial decisions from the bench over the years, but probably the most controversial came in late 1998, when he disbanded the Santa Clara County Grand Jury, claiming that five jurors had broken their oath to keep the jury's proceedings private. The jurors publicly criticized Nichols and pointed out that the jury's forewoman was a former court clerk for Nichols.
Stephen Smith, Nichols' bailiff of 20 years, said the time Nichols spent in family court proved he "had a heart for families."
"He tried to keep everything above board," Smith said. There was less "bickering" in his courtroom, he said, and he would make a special effort to settle cases before they went to trial.
"He was always affable, friendly to everyone."
On Monday, Nichols was back in court for a month of pro-bono work presiding over civil cases. He expects to continue to serve as a retired judge in Chief Justice Ronald M. George's Assigned Judges Program, under which he would serve as a part-time judge without pay in order to save the county some money.
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