Attorney Stephen F. Boutin, named distinguished attorney of the year by the Sacramento County Bar, left his tie hanging on the back of his office door for this interview. He only wears it, he said, when he has “to act like a grown-up.”
Boutin eschews pretense, a trait he said he picked up from parents Frank and Charlotte “Tink” Boutin. Tink Boutin was the daughter of Stephen Wheeler Downey Jr., founder of Downey Brand, the nearly 90-year-old Sacramento law firm based on Capitol Mall. Frank Boutin started practicing as an orthopedist in the Sacramento region in 1953. Over a 60-year career as a physician, his son said, he performed more than 35,000 surgeries. The son described his father as a role model in every way for his six children.
“The only way I disappointed him was that there were six kids in our family, and we had two ends of the table,” said Boutin (pronounced boo-TAN), “and I was on the social sciences end of it with my mother. There were three of us, and we’d be talking to my mom about world issues. At the other end of the table were all the medical people. As far as I was concerned, they were speaking Latin.”
Well, it wasn’t literally Latin. But everyone at the table spoke some French, a language Frank Boutin insisted his children learn because of their heritage. He and his wife stressed humility, honesty, education and finishing what you started, the younger Boutin said.
Later, when Boutin attended Encina Preparatory High School, these parental influences would marry with lessons from world history teacher Leon Biren to forge a world citizen. Boutin took an intensive German class and went to live with an Austrian family in 1966.
He was told the family couldn’t speak any English, but the patriarch surprised him by speaking a few words of Boutin’s native language. When he asked where he had learned it, someone volunteered the answer: “gefängnis.”
“I think I know what that means,” Boutin replied. “Is it ‘prison?’ ”
As it turned out, his host had been conscripted into the German army during World War II, was captured by the Allies and became a prisoner of war in an Oklahoma camp. His host got teary-eyed and told him: “Nobody likes to be a prisoner, but many of my friends never came home. … The Americans treated me decently. I got three meals a day. I was treated humanely and they released me after the war, and I got to come back to my wife and have my three children.”
Boutin so enjoyed his experience with the Janzsa family, he said, that he signed up for a program at Occidental College to spend a year studying at the University of Vienna. He had to find roommates and approached two other young men, one white and the other black, to share quarters.
Boutin said Georgia native Bernie Cook looked at him like he had two heads when he asked him to be his roommate. Cook had attended segregated schools, and he told Boutin: “I’ve picked cotton. I’ve cropped tobacco. I’ve used the books that come from your schools. I never talked to a white kid growing up.”
The teen from suburban Sacramento replied: “I’d just like to get to know you.”
“He had such a down-to-earth, humane sense of self. It wasn’t like, ‘Do you know who I am? Do you realize how lucky you are today?’ ” Boutin said.
The 1960s convergence of racial, economic and wartime issues forced the young Boutin to grapple with the nation’s inequities, he said, and that struggle drew him to the justice system. Like King, he said, he had faith that the legal system had the best chance of upholding constitutional principles.
After graduating in 1969, Boutin chose to attend law school at UC Davis. King had been assassinated in 1968, and UC Davis had chosen to dedicate its law school to the assassinated civil rights leader’s ideals. The dedication ceremony had included a speech by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, an old friend of Boutin’s grandfather. The idea of being at King Hall, Boutin said, just felt right.
He was hired by Downey Brand after graduating, and the partners told him that he got the position despite his family connections, not because of them. His grandfather had died, he said, but his uncle, Jack Downey, was a partner in the firm at the time.
Actually, three generations of Downeys had preceded Boutin in the field. His great-grandfather, Stephen Wheeler Downey, was admitted to the bar in 1863 in Washington, D.C. He subsequently moved to Wyoming, where he became the first lawyer in the United States to try a case with women on the jury.
Boutin’s grandfather and great-uncle, Sheridan Downey, both headed after college for mines in Goldfield, Nev., but the mines were being abandoned just as they got there. So, the brothers continued west until they ran out of money in Sacramento, where they set up a legal practice together.
Boutin’s grandfather founded Downey Brand in 1926. Sheridan Downey eventually was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1938. He was one of only two major West Coast politicians to oppose internment of Japanese Americans in World War II.
Boutin keeps a framed poster on his office wall titled “Eminent judges and lawyers of California, from 1947,” a gift from his brother, noted San Francisco attorney Peter Boutin. He had seen it in an opposing counsel’s office and spotted their grandfather pictured on it, along with Warren and Edmund G. Brown Sr., the current governor’s father.
A civil litigator, Boutin made partner at Downey Brand by age 30. He practiced there for about 14 years before he founded his own firm, now called Boutin Jones. His daughter Gabrielle “Brie” Boutin works at his firm, as well. His other daughter, Alexis, is an associate professor of anthropology at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. He and his wife Linda have been married 38 years.
Boutin has a winning personality that plays well with juries, said Deborah Maddux, a Boutin protégé who now has her own regional firm, Van Dermyden Maddux. Other mentees, Amy O’Neill and Robert Swanson of Boutin Jones, said Boutin finds legal strategies that others might overlook or too quickly dismiss. What distinguishes Boutin is his competitive spirit, said Frank Whittaker, retired vice president of operations for The McClatchy Co., parent company of The Bee, noting that the attorney was the inaugural winner of the Ironman competition in the local Eppie’s Great Race.
Over the years, Boutin has represented McClatchy, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, swimming coach legend Sherm Chavoor, and other well-known companies and individuals. But the cases that stick with him are those in which he was able to make a tremendous difference in the lives of clients.
In one case, he said, he helped an 800-meter runner maintain his eligibility at Cordova High School. Without it, Boutin said, the boy would not have gotten the athletic scholarships he needed to pay for college. In another case, he prevented the California Interscholastic Federation from pushing El Camino Fundamental High School, a football powerhouse at the time, into a different athletic conference that resulted in grueling travel times for students.
“We went to court. … The students were all dressed in their green letterman jackets,” Boutin said. “They wanted to put me on their shoulders and carry me out of the courtroom. I said, ‘Well, we can’t gloat too much. Let’s at least get outside.’ ”