Sonoma County judge Rene Chouteau learning from adversity
Clad in surf shorts and flippers, Rene Chouteau stands on the edge of the Russian River, eyeing the gently moving water as it sparkles in the afternoon sun.
Without warning, the presiding judge of Sonoma County Superior Court launches himself into a shallow dive and swims upstream in a steady crawl.
"It's pretty nice," Chouteau said a few minutes later as he hauled himself out on a gray boulder.
Fighting the current near his Alexander Valley home is part of a regular workout routine for Chouteau, an avid surfer and outdoorsman who at 68 years old is more buff than many men half his age. The river flow serves as a kind of backyard resistance pool to keep him trim.
But lately, the square-jawed jurist has been going against a different tide — public opinion. This summer, he led the bench in adopting a controversial ban on courthouse protests, proselytizing and other "expressive activities" that were deemed disruptive.
The order — which included a dress code prohibiting miniskirts and sagging pants — came at the request of the Sheriff's Office, which sought a written policy that its bailiffs could enforce to minimize disturbances, protect jurors and instill a sense of decorum.
Instead, it drew sharp criticism from free-speech and labor advocates who denounced it as an infringement on individual rights. Some argued courthouse protests were a cherished American tradition, while others claimed the dress code was needlessly archaic and outdated.
Amid a series of scathing letters to the editor, including one from a recently retired judge, Chouteau rescinded the order. He conceded the wording was unclear and vowed to seek public input before returning with a new policy.
Like his resistance training regimen in the Russian River, Chouteau says he's has emerged from the experience a sturdier soul.
"Anytime you encounter adversity, you learn from it, and it certainly does make you more sensitive and perhaps stronger," Chouteau said. "In fact, throughout my life I've learned much more from my mistakes than my successes."
Colleagues on the bench said the shift was indicative of Chouteau's willingness to listen to all sides and change his opinion if persuaded. Judge Gary Medvigy, who helped draft the order Chouteau ultimately signed, said it is a measure of Chouteau's strong leadership and open mind.
"He very much cared about what was being said and took it to heart," Medvigy said.
Others in the legal field echoed the sentiments, saying Chouteau is nothing if not an independent thinker.
Santa Rosa criminal defense attorney Chris Andrian, who grew up with Chouteau in San Francisco's Richmond District and has been around him through most of his career, said Chouteau always has been considerate of other views and defies cookie-cutter comparisons.
"I have known this man for most of my life," Andrian said. "He's always been a unique person who marches to his own drummer. And he's a very fair-minded judge."
Rene Auguste Chouteau — a descendant and namesake of the French-American founder of St. Louis, Mo. — has been hearing the public's concerns in a career spanning more than 40years.
Before his appointment to the bench in 2001 by Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, Chouteau was Santa Rosa's city attorney for more than 18 years. As chief legal adviser to the City Council, his office helped push through initiatives in public housing, community policing and city revitalization.