He wore the formal black robes of a Kern County Superior Court judge — and wielded the awesome power that comes with that honorable position. Yet Judge Charles Phillip "Phil" McNutt was viewed almost universally as an old-fashioned gentleman, a man in whom honor and respect and kindness were ingrained in his character and his demeanor, inside and outside the courtroom.
McNutt died May 10 after a long fight against pancreatic cancer. He was 69.
"I appeared before Judge McNutt countless times," recalled veteran Bakersfield defense attorney H.A. Sala. "I knew that when I appeared in his court, I would be heard, and that justice would be done."
McNutt was exceptionally intelligent, analytical and fair to all parties, said Sala, who never detected bias or prejudice in the judge's rulings.
"On those occasions when a legal argument became heated or a witness became hostile, Judge McNutt could restore order by calmly and sternly directing the parties to maintain decorum without raising his voice," Sala said. "One of the many qualities I greatly admired was his courteous temperament. He was the epitome of what a great judge should be. He will be missed."
Indeed, whether talking with fellow judges or attorneys who appeared before him, a theme soon began to emerge as words like kind, courteous and fair began to be repeated in independent interviews.
Retired Judge Frank Hoover said he met McNutt in 1972, when they each were hired, fresh out of law school, as deputy prosecutors at the Kern County District Attorney's office.
"We went through everything together," Hoover remembered in a Facebook post he shared with The Californian supplemented by a telephone interview. "We both had one child and were so broke we sometimes had no money even after getting paid."
The two friends proceeded up the ranks as Deputy D.A.s. McNutt was serving as court commissioner when, in 1982, he was appointed by the governor to be a judge. Hoover had already received his appointment to a judgeship a month or two earlier.
"I shared his large office until expansion courtrooms were completed on the third floor," Hoover recalled. "I actually think I have spent more time with Phil McNutt than anyone outside my family. We worked closely for more than 30 years and I love him like family."
Terry McNally, Kern County Superior Court's longtime executive officer, said in an email that McNutt served in the Metro Bakersfield Municipal Court prior to his elevation to Superior Court judge when the courts merged in January 2001. McNutt served primarily in the criminal courts and was a past presiding judge for the Bakersfield Municipal Court.
"He had a great interest in technology," McNally said, "and led many of the efforts to automate the local courts in Kern County, improving court services to his constituents."
McNutt retired from the bench in 2007, after some 35 years in the legal profession.
Longtime Bakersfield attorney Randy Dickow harkened back to a time several years ago when "our bench was not the most friendly.
"Going to Judge McNutt's court was always a pleasure," Dickow said. "He treated everyone in his courtroom with the utmost respect: clerks, reporters, defendants and attorneys. He was always civil and very fair in his rulings."
McNutt enjoyed a rich family life and a life of faith in addition to his duties as an attorney and court judge.
According to a family obituary, McNutt took care of his first wife, Mary Gail, for 42 years before her death in 2008. In 2009 he married Jeanne.
He is survived by his wife, his three grown children, Steve, Sara Allbee, and Scott.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Parkside Church in Bakersfield. A light meal will be served afterward.