J. Barton Phelps
April 27, 1917-June 15, 2018
Menlo Park, California
Judge of the Superior Court (retired)
Our beloved Bart Phelps passed away June 15, 2018, age 101, under the loving care of his cherished wife Jeanette. He led an illustrious life in serving his country and as a leader in professional and civic activities and in his life as a loving husband, father, grandfather, and great grandfather.
James Barton Phelps was born April 27, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas to Barton Palmer Phelps and Bertha Rowles Phelps. His father held two engineering degrees from Purdue University and worked for The Acheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railways. His mother, Bertha, was a YWCA professional and a force for Bart and his younger brother Stephen that left a deep impression on his life.
Upon graduation from Topeka High School, Bart attended the University of Chicago, obtaining his degree in Political Science in 1937; then attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1940.
After Law School, on the advise of a classmate, Bart decided to venture to the west coast to explore options for employment. Through a friend, he met Jean Palmer and promptly decided to stay in California. They wed in 1942 and lovingly raised their children, Barton Palmer Phelps II and Nancy Dingley Phelps until Jean’s tragic passing in 1976.
Bart began his law career in San Francisco and worked for the well known firm of Morrison, Foerster, Holloway, Clinton, and Clark before enlisting in the Navy during WWII, in which he served from 1941 to 1945. He became a Lt. Commander and served in the Mediterranean theatre and in the South Pacific. He was in naval intelligence and was also in combat in the South Pacific, participating in the battle of Leyte Gulf.
After the war, Bart returned to San Francisco and continued with the Morrison, Foerster firm, but then was asked by Pat Brown, then District Attorney for San Francisco, to come to work at the DA's office. Bart did so for two years, and then joined the well-known civil defense law firm of Bledsoe, Cathcart, Johnson, and Rogers where he spent almost 10 years as an experienced trial lawyer specializing in the defense of medical malpractice cases. While in San Francisco he was an incorporator of the San Francisco Bar Association and served on its first board. He was also a founder of the Association of Defense Council of Northern California and an original member of the American Board of Trial Advocates.
In the early sixties, two close friends of Bart, Harold Ropers and Gene Majeski, who practiced on the peninsula, invited Bart to join them in their Redwood City firm; he did so, and the firm became known as Ropers, Majeski, and Phelps which became a trial firm without peer on the peninsula, doing extensive trial work in San Mateo, San Francisco, and Santa Clara counties. Bart was a top trial lawyer and specialized in complex litigation. He loved this practice and helped grow Ropers into a much sought-after firm. His former partners report that he put his stamp on the firm by making law practice a "family affair," emphasizing mentoring for new associates, frequent lunches given by the partners for all associates and encouraging retreats for the partners and spouses. One of his greatest legacies was the contribution to the establishment of a solid sense of trust and respect across the firm.
In 1970, Bart was appointed by Governor Reagan to the Municipal Court, then to the Superior Court 2 years later, where he served until 1986. Judge Phelps was highly respected for his courtroom demeanor, his intelligence, his productivity as a judge, and for his wisdom. He retired in 1986 and then was one of California's first judges to establish a private judging service for trials, arbitrations, and mediations. He practiced successfully as a private judge handling and disposing of several cases of national interest. He heard his last case in 2006.
Bart and Jeanette Boyd were wed in 1988 when Jeanette’s son Patrick who at age 10 entered a loving bonding with Bart.
Bart was a member of the Palo Alto Club, which he loved; the Foothill Swim and Tennis Club; the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco; the Guardsmen; the San Francisco Fly Casting Club; the Los Altos Country Club (he loved golf); the Olympic Club and the Bohemian Club in San Francisco.
Bart was active in peninsula civic affairs. He was on the Board of Castilleja School in Palo Alto and on the Board of Directors of the Stanford University Hospital where he advised the hospital on their decision to move from San Francisco to the Palo Alto campus.
He was a voracious reader of all topics. After which he would write a review, frequently sending them to friends and posting them on Amazon.
Bart is survived by his adoring wife of 30 years, Jeanette, by his sons Barton Phelps II and Patrick J. Boyd, nieces & nephews, four grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. He was predeceased by his first wife of 34 years, Jean Phelps; daughter, Nancy and brother, Stephen Rowles Phelps.
Any considered donations should be contributed to the Cardiac Therapy Foundation of the Mid-Peninsula, 4000 Middlefield Road, Suite G-8, Palo Alto, CA 94303 or The Church of the Nativity, 210 Oak Grove Avenue, Menlo Park, CA 94025. A special memorial mass will be held at Nativity on Wednesday, June 27th at 11am followed by a reception.
Judge Phelps leaves behind loving memories of faith, family and friends.