Fresno legal titan Lowell Carruth remembered for his 1-2 punch: Nice and competitive

Lowell Carruth stands on the fourth-floor patio of the McCormick Barstow Sheppard Wayte Caruth law firm at River Park Place near Woodward Park for a 1997 portrait. Carruth was named best trial lawyer of the year by his colleagues of the American Board of Trial Lawyers.
Lowell Carruth stands on the fourth-floor patio of the McCormick Barstow Sheppard Wayte Caruth law firm at River Park Place near Woodward Park for a 1997 portrait. Carruth was named best trial lawyer of the year by his colleagues of the American Board of Trial Lawyers. Fresno Bee file

Lowell Carruth’s professional life, it seems, is the stuff of legend.

He notched more than 200 jury trials in 51 years as an attorney. He won numerous awards for his legal work. He served on boards and did other civic work. His hand can still be seen in the ranks of Fresno’s bench – superior, appellate and federal courts.

The firm he called home is these days better known as McCormick Barstow, but still officially carries Mr. Carruth’s name – McCormick Barstow Sheppard Wayte and Carruth. And though it was known in its early days for insurance defense, Mr. Carruth was an integral part in growing it beyond those roots into what today is arguably Fresno’s premier law firm.

“He was the best at whatever he did,” former Gov. Pete Wilson, who was Mr. Carruth’s law school roommate at Boalt Hall at the University of California at Berkeley, told a packed house at Pardini’s on Thursday afternoon.

A who’s who of Fresno’s legal community – federal and superior court judges, 5th District Court of Appeal justices, prosecutors and attorneys, especially from McCormick Barstow, both past and present – came to pay their respects to Mr. Carruth, who died Oct. 23 at age 77. Mr. Carruth died of lung cancer, even though he never smoked.

For all that, it wasn’t so much the legal titan or the ultra-competitive courtroom advocate who was remembered Thursday as was the easygoing guy who was a loyal friend and dedicated father.

In Mr. Carruth’s dying days, even as he knew the end was near, he was still holding court in his north Fresno home, U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill recalled in a eulogy.

Coming by to chat were O’Neill, 5th District Court of Appeal Justices Stephen Kane and Brad Hill, developer Richard Gunner, Mr. Carruth’s brothers and others.

“For as much as he hurt, we didn’t hear about it,” O’Neill said. “The only way we knew was because we could see a hidden wince from time to time. It was a joy to everyone who witnessed Lowell and his attitude, and it reminded us the depth of what we were losing.”

Most things in life seemingly came easy to Mr. Carruth. But possibly not always as easy as it looked: He overcame a childhood stutter to the point that it was rarely noticeable.

Wilson recalled Mr. Carruth as tall and handsome, and when they worked together as “hashers” (house help) in a Berkeley sorority house (“Far and away the best job on campus,” Wilson said. “The fringe benefits were extraordinary.”), it was Mr. Carruth who got the attention from the coeds, Wilson said Thursday. Part of that, Wilson said, was not just because of his looks, but because he was a nice guy.

“He was genuinely nice to everyone, except people who were not nice to other people,” Wilson said. “Then you better look out, because he would take you to task.”

One of those taken to task was a fellow attorney who was treating Chuck Poochigian harshly. Poochigian is now a 5th District Court of Appeal justice, but the story Wilson related was when Poochigian was a young attorney just getting his start. During a deposition, the opposing attorney was objecting to several of Poochigian’s questions. During a break, Poochigian overheard Mr. Carruth dressing down the attorney, saying that Poochigian was doing his best and the attorney was out-of-line and unprofessional.

Mr. Carruth also was ultra-competitive, his daughter Marlo recalled in comments.

Mr. Carruth loved tennis, played collegiate tennis and once competed in a tournament at Wimbledon. And Marlo, too, loved tennis. A few years ago, she began playing again, confessing to the audience Thursday that it was at least partly to make Mr. Carruth happy because he loved to watch her compete and talk about it. She said that soon after she started playing again, her dad recalled a Florida tournament she played in when she was 12 – every hotel, every one of her opponents and even the scores of each match. Among Mr. Carruth’s many talents, add a photographic memory. He was so competitive that he even scouted Marlo’s upcoming opponents.

But son Kenton said tennis wasn’t his thing. Instead, he was into snowboarding and mountain biking. Mr. Carruth didn’t get it, and Kenton Carruth didn’t get his father’s “very, very competitive nature” until he had his own children.

That competitive drive was ideal for the courtroom. And it seemed Mr. Carruth was never too old to learn.

O’Neill, who worked at McCormick Barstow before becoming a judge, first at the superior court level and now at the federal level, recalled epic legal battles between Mr. Carruth and his polar opposite of the Fresno legal era, Richard Watters. O’Neill said Mr. Carruth told him that each case he contested against Watters made him a better attorney.

The relationship between Wilson and Mr. Carruth never faded, personally or professionally. When Wilson was governor, Mr. Carruth served on advisory committees for judicial selection. It was a two-way street, recalled Poochigian, who was Wilson’s appointments secretary. Mr. Carruth’s committee would vet potential local judges, and Wilson also asked Mr. Carruth for input on applicants at the state level. Mr. Carruth had a hand in more than two dozen judicial appointments under Wilson, several of whom are still working at the superior or appellate court levels.

Mr. Carruth’s influence even made it to the federal court level. Three Fresno-based federal judges – the late Robert E. Coyle as well as O’Neill and Oliver W. Wanger – are McCormick Barstow alumni.

In short, Mr. Carruth is one of those rare individuals who has left an indelible mark on the central San Joaquin Valley. But at his core, he was still a nice, humble guy, Wilson and O’Neill said.

Said Wilson: “He was just a helluva nice man with extraordinary skills.”