Fresno County Judge Robert Oliver retiring next year

The Fresno BeeJanuary 27, 2014 

Fresno Superior Court Judge Robert Oliver instructs Buchanan and Bullard high school students in Mock Trial at the Fresno County courthouse in 2009.

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Judge Robert H. Oliver will leave Fresno County Superior Court next January after serving nearly 20 years on the bench.

Known for his handwritten notes, courteous, modest demeanor and strong work ethic, Oliver's vacancy is expected to lead to a crowded field of candidates for a six-year term in June's primary election.

He announced his retirement to his friends Sunday in an e-mail that, in poignant, funny and humble terms, allowed him to reflect on his years as a judge.

He noted the often small, but valuable differences, a judge makes in knowing "there are no 'routine' cases. Every decision has a consequence. Some will alter the lives of parties before us."

Oliver joined the bench in April 1995. He was a business lawyer for 22 years and partner in the firm of Wild, Carter, Tipton & Oliver, when Gov. Wilson tapped him to replace retired Judge Annette LaRue.

Oliver's courtroom was not "an assembly line," said Judge Brad Hill, presiding judge on the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno.

"It has never been just a job to him," Hill said. "Being a judge is something he feels privileged to do and he feels every case means the world to the folks in the courtroom so he makes sure to do everything he can to ensure justice is served."

Judge Gary Hoff, presiding judge in Fresno County Superior Court last year, said Oliver, who serves as the county's probate judge, has the personality to handle what is frequently a job of navigating family fights .

"It's one of those assignments where you are often dealing with people at very difficult times in their lives," he said. "Bob has great compassion and does a terrific job."

Lawyer Melissa White, past president of the Fresno County Bar Association, said she is always touched when she gets a handwritten note on Oliver's personal, index-card-sized stationery.

"You can't do anything (good) in the community without getting a signed, handwritten note from him," she said. "He is just a kind and nice person who treats every attorney with respect no matter which side they represent."

Oliver said the notes became part of his repartee after he saw how personal correspondence touches people. He recalled when his mother got a handwritten note years ago from a family friend about him and his brother. He saw how happy his mother was after getting the note.

He also said the elder President George Bush was a copious note writer, something he thought was a nice way to honor a person's achievements.

A certified specialist in estate planning, trust and probate law, Oliver, 70, earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Fresno State and a law degree from Golden Gate University. He has been married to his wife, Stephanie, for 42 years. They have two sons.

Oliver also was a second lieutenant in the Air National Guard, was chairman of the foundation board at Fresno State, was part of a folk-singing trio and a cornet player in a Dixieland band.

Oliver has not made plans for what he refuses to call retirement.

He said he will consider mediation work because it is rewarding to see his decisions helping opposing parties.

In his letter to friends, he said moments he will cherish are the ones when he realized he made a difference.

He referred to an instance when he was approached by someone outside a downtown Fresno courthouse who told him: "I am sure you don't remember me -- but you saved my life -- by sending me to prison. I changed. Thank you."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or @beebenjamin on Twitter.

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