James MacLaine Paxton, whose very full life took him from the woods of northern Idaho to the California State Supreme Court, died Thursday, June 14. He was 90 years old.
It was in the practice of law that Mr. Paxton found his calling, one he pursued for more than 56 years before retirement. It was his profession and his passion, and in the courtroom or the boardroom, he was an adversary to be reckoned with.
Born in Oakland, CA, Mr. Paxton moved with his parents, Jerry and Ruth, as an infant to the Pacific Northwest, where he grew up. An only child, Mr. Paxton and his first cousin, Dorothy Titus, “adopted” one another as ersatz siblings. They left a trail of mayhem behind them as they grew up, and remained in touch weekly throughout their lives.
He was a graduate of Lewiston High School. During those years, the shortage of strong young men brought on by World War II brought Mr. Paxton opportunity in the guise of employment with the Idaho Forest Service. He made the most of his time in the woods, mostly as a rich source of storytelling material.
Mr. Paxton accompanied his father, who worked for Weyerhauser, on a sales trip to Seattle. It was there that an attorney took interest in a precocious boy of 12, and asked him about his aspirations. Before he left the office, his life’s course was set. James Paxton would become an attorney. Perhaps the practice of law suited Mr. Paxton so well because of his love of story-telling, the spoken word and a good, old-fashioned argument. He never showed embarrassment as he recounted the time, flushed with excitement, that he streaked downfield during a Lewiston High football game, and recovered his own team’s punt before running it into the end zone for a touchdown – for his opponents.
He went on to attend the University of Idaho, accepting early graduation in order to begin studying law at Stanford University. Notably, Mr. Paxton’s small graduating class at Stanford included two colleagues – Sandra Day O’Connor and William Rhenquist – who would go on to become Supreme Court justices.
His studies were punctuated with service in the U.S. Army, where he leveraged his poor eyesight and good typing skills to attain the rank of staff sergeant in the 1st Army, Atomic Corps. He spent his free time reading Army regulations, his efforts being rewarded by becoming the first enlisted soldier in the entire 1st Army to receive an honorable discharge after just 15 months of service.
After law school, Mr. Paxton began his career with the Santa Cruz County district attorney’s office. When his boss, the first woman to serve as a district attorney in the history of California, was not re-elected, Mr. Paxton and his colleagues elected to resign, and he entered private practice, first in Redwood City. It is worth noting that the man who unseated Mr. Paxton’s first boss was later convicted of racketeering and disbarred, an “I told you so” moment Mr. Paxton never tired of enjoying, and sharing with friends. By 1961, he had joined the firm of Wykoff, Parker, Boyle and Pope, at the time the largest law firm between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Mr. Paxton and John Coughlin were named partners, and appointed to run the Hollister office that continues to operate today as Pipal and Spurzem, LLC. The move allowed him to return to the town where his wife had grown up, and where the family has deep roots. Mary and Jim enjoyed entertaining their growing circle of friends. Many of his best friendships were forged during his many years as a member of the Rotary Club of Hollister. He also was an active member of the faith community at what is now Christ Fellowship and as a board member of the Community Foundation for San Benito County.
His passion for the practice of law led to nights poring over files and six-day work weeks, but his indefatigable nature also afforded him time to pursue his love for the outdoors, golf, tennis and travel. His love of the language made him a notorious wit who never met a pun he didn’t like. Most of all, he made time to cultivate lasting friendships throughout the community and to devote himself to what he regarded as his greatest achievement – his family.
Mr. Paxton was preceded in death in 2000 by his wife of 45 years, Kathryn Mary Paxton. They met while he was in the Santa Cruz DA’s office, enjoying a courtship rooted in the sand and surf that he enjoyed throughout his life. He is survived by his two sons and their wives, Mark and Mary Paxton of Hollister and Craig and Anne Paxton of San Francisco; granddaughters Erin Miller (Shane) of Orono, ME, Maura Paxton of Corvallis, OR, Maida Paxton of San Francisco and Rose Paxton of New York, NY. His nuclear family was not large enough to contain Mr. Paxton’s generous spirit, and he adopted his in-laws in the O’Donnell family as treasured family. Until recently, he lived across the street from his nephew and wife, James and Margaret O’Donnell, and always saved a hug for his niece Kathleen O’Donnell.
A Celebration of Life will be held at the Christ Fellowship Church, 2066 San Benito St., Hollister on Saturday, July 7, 2018 at 10:00 a.m. In lieu of flowers, contributions are preferred to a local charity of the donor’s choice.
Courtesy of Grunnagle-Ament-Nelson Funeral Home