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Napa Judge Philip Champlin, after more than four decades on the bench, retires — again

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Judge Philip Champlin retires

Philip Champlin, seen during an interview earlier this month at the Historic Napa County Courthouse, has retired after a 43-year judicial career in Napa, first as a sitting judge in Superior Court and then, since 2001, as a member of California's roving Temporary Assigned Judges Program.

He first came to Napa as a young law school graduate arriving in a then-quiet wine country town. Fifty-seven years later, Philip Champlin has left behind one of the county’s longest careers as a judge — for the second time.

Champlin, a Napa County Superior Court judge from 1979 to 2000, earlier this month concluded a second act on the bench that lasted nearly as long as his first. He heard his final case Nov. 17 after two decades presiding as a fill-in judge in numerous trials and hearings across several Northern California courts.

“After 42 years, it’s probably a good time for me to step down; the patches of the patches on the elbows of my robe are starting to wear out” the 82-year-old Champlin said with a laugh, lifting his elbows to show off heavily worn sleeves on the black fabric, before one of his final hearings at the Historic Napa County Courthouse. “Everything’s a little frayed, including its occupant.”

A life in the law seemed the least likely path in Champlin’s youth, he admitted during a recent interview in the small court chamber where he has presided over settlement cases “to add a touch of solemnity” to hearings conducted online during the coronavirus pandemic.

The son of a teacher at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, Champlin attended Yale University, became involved with news and programming at the college radio station, and briefly pondered a broadcasting career — until he realized how high the hurdles to on-air renown would be to someone fresh out of school.

“My problem was that I immediately wanted to be the next Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, but instead, (stations) offered me jobs in the mailroom,” he recalled wryly. “I decided I needed to improve my education, and so I opted for law school over business school.”

Three years at the UC Berkeley law school led him, in December 1964, to the Napa law practice of Frank and John Dunlap, who took on the new graduate as a $500-a-month associate to help with their caseload while John Dunlap campaigned for a state Assembly seat, which he won the next year.

After becoming a partner and spending more than a dozen years at the firm, Champlin was appointed to Napa’s old municipal court in 1978 (California later merged municipal and county courts in the late 1980s) and then, the following year, was selected by then-Gov. Jerry Brown for the Napa County bench.

The occasion of Champlin’s 2000 retirement as a sitting judge inspired U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson to honor him in the House, as much for his community service to the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and the Napa Valley College board as to the justice system.

“Few people make an impact on their community the way Philip Champlin has improved and touched ours,” read Thompson’s resolution that May. “Both on and off the bench, his integrity and intelligence have enhanced the quality of life for those around him.”

However, Champlin soon decided the end of one chapter would lead to the beginning of another, even as he and his wife Lynne embarked on a lengthy vacation around the U.S. (Lynne Champlin is a columnist for the Register.)

“I took a year off and then made a decision,” he remembered. “We traveled the country for six months in a motorhome; we did Bike Week in Florida. But it was always in my mind that I had something to offer, and that I was too young to stop working.”

In 2001, a year after stepping down from the Napa bench, Champlin followed the path of others departing regular judgeships — he entered the Temporary Assigned Judges Program. Created to meet a state constitutional requirement to “equalize the work of the judges,” the state-funded program assigns retired judges to fill vacancies in various county courts that are caused by illnesses, scheduling conflicts, or the disqualification of local judges.

Since 2017, Champlin has presided over conferences in Napa County to broker out-of-court settlements to business disputes, a duty he alternates with another former Napa County judge, Raymond Guadagni. His cases cover civil matters including personal injury complaints, business disputes, real estate disagreements over property lines and easements, and clashes over insurance coverage for damage from the 2017 and 2020 wildfires.

“I enjoy it; being a judge is like being a lawyer — you’re the director of the case, you present it in court, he said. “As a judge you’re watching, listening and ultimately deciding. You see the panoply of human behavior, the good, the bad and the ugly. And it’s a fascinating profession; every day is different, and every case is different.”

Although Champlin walks with a cane and has endured the effects of a childhood accident when he was hit by a passing vehicle while stepping off a streetcar, the longtime judge declared that his wish to enjoy hobbies including motorcycling and fishing, rather than health concerns, are leading him to retire — as is a desire to leave the profession behind while still in good standing.

“I want to leave while people still have good feelings about my tenure as a judge, when people are thinking ‘Gee, we’re gonna miss Phil,’” he said about the timing of his exit. “I want to leave while I’m still near the top of the game.”

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You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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