Politics & Government

William Newsom III, prominent judge and father of governor-elect Gavin Newsom, dies at 84

With his right hand high, and his left hand on a Bible held by his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Gavin Newsom, right, is sworn-in as lieutenant governor by his father, William Newsom on Jan. 10, 2011.
With his right hand high, and his left hand on a Bible held by his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Gavin Newsom, right, is sworn-in as lieutenant governor by his father, William Newsom on Jan. 10, 2011. (Rich Pedroncelli / The Associated Press)

William Newsom III, a former California judge, environmental advocate and the father of governor-elect Gavin Newsom, died Wednesday after a long illness. He was 84.

“Justice Newsom was a proud, lifelong Californian, a public servant of profound accomplishment and a powerful voice for individual rights and environmental protection,” Nathan Click, a spokesman for Gavin Newsom, said in a statement announcing the death.

It comes less than a month before Gavin Newsom will be sworn in as California’s 40th governor.

“He may not have gotten to see Gavin sworn in. But he saw Gavin elected governor of this state, which was a great source of pride for Billy,” said John Burton, a close friend of William Newsom’s and former member of Congress from California.

William Newsom was a close friend of oil magnate Gordon Getty and helped manage his finances. He helped deliver ransom money after the 1973 kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson.

William Newsom’s connections in San Francisco — in both business and politics — helped launch his son’s career. The Gettys and Gavin Newsom ended up investing in PlumpJack Cafe and the Balboa Cafe, and several other San Francisco businesses.

He was a staunch advocate for environmental protection, serving on the board of the Sierra Club Foundation, the group’s charitable arm, and of the Environmental Defense Fund. Occasionally Newsom was restricted in how much environmental advocacy he could do while serving as a judge, former Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope said. He and Newsom were close friends, with Newsom serving as the best man in Pope’s wedding.

In addition to Gavin, Newsom is survived by a daughter, Hilary. He and their mother, Tessa Menzies, divorced when Gavin Newsom, 51, was young. William Newsom made a home in the community of Dutch Flat in the Sierra Nevada foothills and fell in love with the landscape and nature there, Pope said. It inspired him to help form the Mountain Lion Foundation and lead a 1990 ballot measure to ban mountain lion hunting.

“That was his country,” Pope said.

During his gubernatorial run, Gavin Newsom said his favorite memories with his father were spent camping and backpacking along California’s rivers. His father once had a river otter as a pet, he said. His father also helped shape his views on drug policy and racial justice.

“He had an amazing life. He was an amazing influence on me,” Newsom said.

On the court of appeals, Newsom ruled on a diverse array of cases from the right of privacy for HIV-positive health care patients to the liability of the San Francisco 49ers over a player’s crippling knee injury. In one prominent case, he ruled the prestigious Bohemian Club, a men’s club north of San Francisco that counted Ronald Reagan as a member, could not enforce a ban on hiring women.

William Newsom also was close with and a chief fundraiser for Gov. Jerry Brown’s father, former Gov. Pat Brown, and had worked on Harry Truman’s 1948 presidential campaign. He lived in Placer County, and after his divorce, he was known to take young Gavin to San Francisco to meet with Jerry Brown former Mayor George Moscone and other politicians.

“Anne and I extend our deepest condolences to the entire Newsom family,” Jerry Brown said in a statement. “Bill was a longtime friend, a champion of the environment and someone whom I was proud to appoint to the superior court and court of appeal.”

Brown ordered Capitol flags flown at half staff.

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