Judge Peter A. Nowinski, a retired U.S. magistrate judge who played a role in the Unabomber case and also served as chief associate deputy attorney general during the George H.W. Bush administration, died last week in Sacramento. He was 74.
Nowinski died July 26 at home surrounded by his family, according to his son, Alexander. He had battled blood cancer since 2015.
“He had a unique love for language and the beauty of finding the right word,” the younger Nowinski said. “He taught me when I was very young the beauty of choosing the perfect word to express whatever I was feeling.”
Nowinski was described as “irreverent – he was very dignified, a person that you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of – he had quite a sense of humor, that was his defining characteristic,” Alexander Nowinski said.
“Appearing in Judge Nowinski’s court was a pleasure. His judicial decision-making and manner were clearly influenced by a strong sense of fairness and his own life experience,” First Assistant U.S. Attorney Phillip A. Talbert said on behalf of the Sacramento office. “Whether he ruled in your favor or not, attorneys in his court knew that Judge Nowinski gave each side an opportunity to be heard and made the best decision he could.”
During his tenure on the Sacramento bench for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, Nowinski presided over several high-profile cases, including the pretrial proceedings for Theodore J. Kaczynski, who was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison in the infamous Unabomber case that killed three people and maimed 23 others with a series of mail bombings that spanned two decades.
He ruled in 2000 that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were constitutional in the case against the Elk Grove Unified School District brought by lawyer and physician Michael Newdow, who is an atheist. The case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 with the justices blocking Newdow’s effort to excise the passage, ruling that the phrase did not endorse or establish religion and that Newdow lacked legal standing as a “noncustodial parent.”
He was also the judge who heard the confessions of Cary Stayner, the motel janitor who decapitated a Yosemite National Park naturalist and killed three other sightseers in the park.
“If you were a lawyer in his court you’d need to be prepared, but he was a very kind man,” Alexander recalled of his father. “He had an especially soft spot for young lawyers making their first appearance in front of him, I’ve had people come up to me my whole life telling me about that.”
That preparation and dedication to the law was encapsulated in the 2002 book “Federal Trial Objections” that Nowinski co-wrote with David F. Levi, the former dean of Duke Law School who is director of the school’s Bolch Judicial Institute.
“Judge Nowinski was a wonderful colleague and a very gifted lawyer and judge.” said Levi, who served as the Eastern District’s chief justice during Nowinski’s tenure. “He was a quick study, indomitable, insightful, fair and understanding. He believed in the ideal of justice and devoted himself to that end.”
“He had a great sense of humor, and an intense appreciation of anything that was well made – whether a legal brief, a turn of phrase, a delicious meal, or a beautiful object or article of clothing.” said Levi. “He had a passionate love of history and of the acts of bravery and sacrifice by our forebears.”
Alexander said his father was remembered by many as someone who thought through all aspects of each situation he was faced with, which helped him in his position as a judge.
“He had an indomitable spirit,” Alexander said. “He faced everything head first, and he didn’t shy away from controversy or difficulty. I’ve never known anyone who dealt with things as roundly or as readily as he did.”
Nowinski followed news so frequently that Alexander said he would have to make sure he read the previous day’s newspaper before visiting his father – otherwise he would be behind in the conversation.
“He saw an erosion in civic responsibility – he felt that the community’s sense of responsibility was eroding, and that was sadly resulting in the quiet surrender of civil rights and liberties,” Alexander said.
Peter Anthony Nowinski was born Sept. 16, 1943, in Pennsylvania and was raised in Coronado by his grandparents, Rear Adm. William Joseph Nowinski and Adilla Sophia Huber. He studied English at UC Berkeley, where he rowed for the crew team, and earned his law degree from the Hastings College of Law in San Francisco in 1969.
He practiced private law in Palo Alto for several years before joining as a trial attorney the torts division at the Justice Department in 1978, moving up to director of the division in 1985. In that role, Nowinski managed the U.S. government’s response to the asbestos litigation crisis
He moved to Sacramento in 1985 to serve under Donald Ayer as first assistant U.S. attorney and acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California from 1985 to 1987.
After a brief stint at Wilke, Fleury, Hoffelt, Gould & Birney, Nowinski rejoined the Justice Department as Ayer’s principal aide in 1990 under Dick Thornburgh as a chief associate deputy attorney general, a position which his son said Nowinski remembered fondly.
“He described that as the greatest classroom a lawyer could ever have, he said it was a wonderful experience,” Alexander Nowinski said.
Four months into the job, however, Nowinski quit with Ayer, the deputy attorney general, over what at the time was described as senior justice officials chafing under Thornburgh’s rigid management style, as well as his undercutting key decisions, including the retraction of a letter from Ayer supporting tougher sentencing guidelines for corporations and white-collar crimes.
“Peter was an unbelievable asset to have at the time,” Ayer said Wednesday, recalling his colleague and friend. “We had to cope with some challenging situations, stuff that shouldn’t have been going on.”
“We did the right thing,” he said, adding that Nowinski was a “smart lawyer and a clear thinker. He knew the difference between right and wrong and was just a great person to have on your side in a tough situation.”
Ayer later characterized the resignations as a response to Thornburgh’s mishandling of an internal investigation into leaks to the media by members of Congress.
Soon after, Nowinski was appointed to the magistrate bench in the Sacramento-based Eastern District in 1990. He served in that role for 16 years before retiring in 2006.
According to Alexander Nowinski, his father was known for the large German shepherds he owned. However, later in life, Nowinski had a special companion in a pug named Augustus, or “Gus.” Alexander said Gus never left his father’s side, and died a short time before he did.
Besides Alexander, Nowinski is survived by children Betsy of Baltimore; Joe of Portland; Ivy of Sacramento; Agatha of Brisbane, Australia; and Clara of Sacramento; and three grandchildren.
A public service will be held at 9:30 a.m. Friday at East Lawn Memorial Park with a reception following at 916 46th St.