Press Release

Stephen Barnett, California Supreme Court expert, dies at 73

| 16 October 2009

Stephen Barnett, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, died of complications resulting from cardiac arrest on Tuesday, Oct. 13. He was 73.

Stephen BarnettStephen Barnett (Jim Block photo)
Barnett was a prominent expert on intellectual property law; the news media; the legal institutions of California, principally the California Supreme Court; and First Amendment issues.

"In his scholarship, Steve was a devastating critic of the practices of the California Supreme Court and the California State Bar Association," said Berkeley Law professor Melvin Eisenberg. "He did a lot of acute, penetrating research that no one else has done regarding judicial transparency and legitimacy."

Berkeley Law Associate Dean and professor Stephen Sugarman said Barnett "was probably California's leading analyst and critic of the way the California Supreme Court goes about its business – how promptly it delivers its decisions, when the judges prepare their opinions, the Court's control over the briefs of parties and the role of oral argument, and the role of unpublished opinions and de-published opinions of lower California courts."

Born on Dec. 25, 1935, in Brooklyn, New York, Barnett was raised in West Hartford, Conn., by his parents, Leona (Nurkin) Barnett and Abraham M. Barnett. He graduated from the Loomis School in Windsor, Conn., and was editor of The Loomis Log.

In 1957, Barnett graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was president of the Harvard Crimson. He also went to law school at Harvard, serving as note editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduating magna cum laude in 1962.

After law school, Barnett spent a year as a law clerk in New York to the late Judge Henry J. Friendly of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He then clerked for one year for the late Justice William J. Brennan Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1965, Barnett began working as an associate with Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in New York and Washington, D.C. He joined the UC Berkeley School of Law faculty in 1967, where he taught classes in copyright and trademarks, torts and California legal institutions.

From 1977 to 1979, Barnett served in the U.S. Justice Department as a deputy solicitor general, briefing and arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He then returned to the Berkeley Law faculty and was awarded the Elizabeth Josselyn Boalt Chair in 1990.

"Steve became the leading critical commentator on the problems generated by federal legislation allowing the newspaper industry to enter into production and revenue-sharing agreements under the umbrella of antitrust immunity," said Berkeley Law professor Richard Buxbaum. "In legislative hearings, participation in litigation, and innumerable op-ed pieces, he kept this problematic exception under constant public scrutiny."

Buxbaum added that Barnett also maintained a leading role "in shaping public policy concerning the industrial structure and public regulation of both print and visual media, which brought him international attention. He was an important participant in the academic studies that influenced new European regulations of these sectors in the 1980s."

Barnett co-authored the book Law of International Telecommunications in the United States in 1988, which provided the first comparative evaluations of national data on the subject and analyzed the role of international organizations in facilitating such communications.

"Professor Barnett's wide engagement with legal systems and legal education in many other countries allowed him both to help other nations benefit from American insights and practices and to help us think about ways of improving ours," said Sugarman.

Barnett, who lectured in many countries, was a visiting professor at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, in 1981 and at the University of Paris in 1987. He also served as a visiting fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Hamburg, Germany, in 1983 and at the University of Sydney in 1994.

Since 2000, Barnett was a contributing commentary writer to California Lawyer magazine, and served as nonresident dean of the law department at the American University of Armenia in Yerevan, Armenia. He retired from Berkeley Law in 2003.

Toward the end of Barnett’s teaching career, his litigation included a 1999 suit that compelled California’s Commission on Judicial Performance to disclose the way its individual members vote, and a suit that the California State Bar settled in 2001 by allowing board-of-governors candidates to make policy statements on the election ballot.

Barnett is survived by his wife, Karine, their son, Alexander, and his stepson, Levon. He also leaves behind his sister, Linda Beizer of Avon, Conn., and three nephews: Bill Beizer of Newton, Mass., Jon Beizer of Hillsborough, Calif., and Matt Beizer of Simsbury, Conn.

"Steve was a wonderful stepfather to Levon, and as he pondered his life accomplishments at retirement he rued the fact that he had never fathered any children of his own," said Barnett's sister. "He became a father for the first time to Alexander at age 69, and they spent virtually every waking hour together and enjoyed a very close relationship."

A private service honoring Barnett’s life is being planned by the family.

Donations in Barnett's memory may be made to the Parkinson Association of Northern California, (916) 489-0226.