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Roger John Traynor

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Among the most influential and highly esteemed jurists of the twentieth century, Roger J. Traynor was a professor, author, and justice of the California Supreme Court from 1940 to 1970. During Traynor's six years as chief justice, that court was regarded as the preeminent state court in the nation. Readily open to reform and to novel legal ideas, Traynor made long-lasting contributions to various areas of the law including taxes, NEGLIGENCE, and FOURTH AMENDMENT jurisprudence. In addition to hundreds of judicial opinions, Traynor also wrote prodigiously as a legal scholar and contributed to a number of legal reform efforts.

Born in Park City, Utah, on February 12, 1900, Traynor was the son of a miner. In the 1920s he studied law and political science at the University of California at Berkeley, where he simultaneously earned a J.D. and Ph.D. while editing the California Law Review. In 1928 he joined the law school staff. Over the next 12 years, he served as a consultant to various state and national agencies, including the U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT. In California his advisory work led to major reforms of sales and use taxes (1933 Cal. Stat. 2599 and 1935 Cal. Stat. 1297), personal income taxes (1943 Cal. Stat. 2354), and bank and corporation franchise taxes (1929 Cal. Stat. 19).

In 1940 Governor Culbert Olson appointed Traynor to the California Supreme Court, making him the first law school professor to be appointed directly to the court. Although he had little experience in private practice, Traynor had earned renown as one of the nation's leading tax scholars. Over the next three decades, he wrote more than 950 opinions and continued his scholarly work, writing more than 75 law review articles on a wide variety of topics.

Traynor had a reformist philosophy, viewing the law as a fluid, changing force that was necessarily responsive to the needs of society. He believed that a judge can and should change the law. Among his most influential opinions was his concurrence in Escola v. Coca Cola Bottling Co., 24 Cal. 2d 453, 150 P.2d 436 (1944), which would dramatically change PRODUCT LIABILITY LAW. Traynor's idea that consumers should be entitled to sue the manufacturers of defective products was novel at the time. Yet, two decades later, the idea was embraced by the full California Supreme Court (Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc., 59 Cal. 2d 57, 27 Cal. Rptr. 697, 377 P.2d 897 [1963]) and soon became the law of the land.


Traynor's jurisprudence amounted to a historic reform of long-standing common-law doctrines, and his ideas influenced courts nationwide. His precedent-setting opinions included People v. Cahan, 44 Cal. 2d 434, 282 P.2d 905 (1955), which restricted the admissibility of illegally secured evidence, and Muskopf v. Corning Hospital District, 55 Cal. 2d 211, 359 P.2d 457, 11 Cal. Rptr. 89 (1961), which eliminated the defense of sovereign immunity—the doctrine that precludes bringing suit against the government without its consent—in TORT cases.

In 1964 Governor Edmund G. Brown Sr. elevated Traynor to the position of chief justice. Over the next six years, the California Supreme Court became the most prestigious state court in the nation. Among the innovations Traynor introduced was the use of law review citations in the court's opinions, thus ensuring that legal scholarship would inform legal opinion. Upon his retirement from the court at the age of 70, he was praised for his work in transforming and modernizing the COMMON LAW. His accomplishments were compared to the reform efforts of BENJAMIN CARDOZO, the legendary New York appellate justice.

After his retirement from the court, Traynor chaired the American Bar Association's Special Committee on Standards of Judicial Conduct, which produced, in 1972, modern standards for the governance of judges. Traynor taught at Hastings College of the Law, the University of Virginia, University of Utah, and as a visiting professor at Cambridge University in England. He also served as chair of the National Press Council. Traynor died in San Francisco, California, on May 13, 1983.

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