Thinking of a federal judge, this image probably doesn’t come to mind: A bearded, long-haired, former smoke jumper firefighter with an affinity for bolo ties, colorful vests and a 160-pound Rottweiler named Bailiff who accompanied him to court.
But that was Donald Pitts, retired federal magistrate judge for Yosemite National Park.
Mr. Pitts died July 31 of a heart attack at the age of 86. A Yosemite resident for 36 years, Mr. Pitts returned in 2011 to Fresno, where he formerly worked as an attorney.
As a Yosemite judge for 18 years, he ruled on federal misdemeanors in the park, Stanislaus National Forest and nearby Bureau of Land Management territory.
The Bee featured Mr. Pitts upon his retirement in 1993, and his colorful life also drew the attention of The New York Times, chronicling many interesting cases that made their way to his small, Yosemite Valley courthouse: daredevil parachutists, an arsonist who burned buildings in protest of civilization, and tourists who lured bears with raw steaks.
On Wednesday, his wife of 33 years, Kay Tolladay Pitts, recalled many amusing defendants, such as the daring mountaineers caught trying to grab marijuana from a plane that crashed in Yosemite in 1976. Officials had to guard the crash site after word got out that pot was floating in a high country lake.
Mr. Pitts was “tremendously ethical” and used his superb memory as a judge, as a prosecutor in the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office and as a private practice attorney, said Kenneth Andreen, retired Fresno municipal and Superior Court judge and Court of Appeal justice. “He knew what the rules of evidence were and he followed them. ... He always did more than his share of the work, and he had a sense of humor and he enjoyed himself. It was easy to be around him because he was so friendly.”
As a judge, he was also known to “go anywhere” in Yosemite to preside over weddings. In his free time, Mr. Pitts often sported his “Ski or Die” T-shirt while gliding over the Sierra on powdery snow. He established the cross-country division of the Yosemite Winter Club.
In his early years, he was a pre-med major at UCLA and a U.S. Army paratrooper. He earned his law degree at the UC Berkeley. In retirement, he and his wife built and ran the Yosemite Peregrine, a bed and breakfast in Yosemite West.
“He loved to dance, he loved to sing, he was just very warm,” Kay Tolladay Pitts said. “He taught me to be a much warmer, nicer person. He taught me to be far more loving than I ever thought I would be.
“He was just very open to life ... open to experiences. Things just didn’t bother him, he didn’t have moods. ... He dealt very successfully with life, and interestingly, we didn’t seem to have any bad times.”
The outlook of this “marvelous person,” his wife said, “came from his being totally open to every experience and accepting people as they are.”