Bob W. McNatt is the kind of man who wears his story on his sleeve.
A rough silver wedding band with a large dark stone decorates his left hand. He made it himself. The hobby reminds him of his part-Cherokee mother.
A USMC tattoo adorns his left forearm, a nod to the three years he spent in the U.S. Marine Corps.
And there’s a knowing glint that never leaves his eye. McNatt has an appraising, calculating mind honed by years as a lawyer and judge.
If you ask nicely, he’ll probably spin you a tale. If you’re not the type to ask nicely, you might have seen him in a courtroom sometime in the past 40 years.
McNatt, who lives in Woodbridge with his wife Peggy, retired last month as a judge with the San Joaquin County Superior Court.
In a life marked by an unusual string of careers and side jobs, McNatt has kept one important strain of continuity.
“I’ve always gotten easily bored,” he said. “But most everything has been connected by law.”
A wandering soul
McNatt was born in east Bakersfield in 1945. His family moved often around the Central Valley to follow his father’s work as a heavy equipment operator for farms.
After he dropped out of East Bakersfield High School at age 17, McNatt took up a few odd jobs, working in a packing shed, then at a gas station, then for a manufacturer of burlap bags.
Those lines of work weren’t satisfying to the young man, and he knew he wasn’t getting anywhere.
“I realized after high school, my prospects were not so hot without a diploma,” he said.
To work on his education, McNatt turned to the military.
In 1962, less than a year after leaving high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. McNatt was first stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, then transferred to Camp Allen in Norfolk, Va. and later Camp Lejeune in Florida. During his three-year service, McNatt earned his GED.
After being discharged in 1965, McNatt was hired as a roughneck on an oil rig in Santa Maria. The work was dirty, hard and dangerous.
The 21-year-old had his fingers broken within a week. It was time for something a little cleaner.
The Santa Maria Police Department was hiring in 1966.
“I thought, ‘Hey, I know how to spit-shine shoes and discharge a firearm,’” he said. McNatt joined the department as a patrol officer and spent two years on the force. During that time, he also attended Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria and earned his associates degree at age 23.
Next door to the police station was a Santa Barbara County Sheriff substation. The commanding officer met McNatt and offered him a similar job for higher pay. He took it.
The job mostly involved patrol work. McNatt also worked in the jail and spent some time in the internal affairs department. At 27, McNatt was promoted to sergeant and served as watch commander, the station’s youngest at the time.
He married in 1969, but it only lasted about a year.
Citing his habitual boredom, McNatt expanded his resume to include college professor. In 1970, he began teaching classes to hopeful future police officers at Hancock College.
At age 30, however, McNatt was feeling burnt out. He had spent seven years with the sheriff’s department and was still dealing with the aftermath of divorce proceedings. He had completed his bachelor’s degree in administrative justice. It was time to reinvent himself.
A new life direction
In 1975, McNatt met Peggy MacGregor, now McNatt. She worked as a waitress at Quito’s, a restaurant where McNatt often dropped in for lunch with his cop buddies. They married the next year.
He began to explore the idea of attending law school. But in the meantime, he needed some new and interesting work to do.
McNatt put his knowledge of police work to use as a reporter for the Santa Barbara News Press. He covered crime and the courts. He knew from the start this would not be long term.
“I felt like an impostor. There were all these bright young kids with degrees in journalism. Sure, I had the cops thing covered, but I wasn’t trained like they were,” he said.
That boredom thing kicked in again.
McNatt has a little background in music. His brother Don McNatt is a country western musician, and the family occasionally played together. As for himself, McNatt has been picking at the guitar since he was 12 years old.
McNatt began moonlighting as a saloon singer. He played weekend gigs around the county, singing folk and soft rock while strumming a guitar.
“It was something to do that sounded fun,” he said.
There was a moment that McNatt considered medical school. But at 30 years old, no school would take him.
“That was God’s way of saving me from my own foolishness,” he said. “If I had to be personally responsible for the lives and welfare of people, I’d lose sleep.”
It wasn’t long until McNatt got the notice he had been waiting on. In 1977, he began studying law at Western State University in San Diego. It wasn’t the most prestigious of schools, but it did have one alluring quality: An accelerated degree program. McNatt had nearly exhausted his VA benefits and needed to get through school quickly. He completed his law degree after an intense 2.5 years of study, graduating in December 1979. In February of the next year, McNatt passed the California Bar Exam.
Working for the city
A connection with an old friend landed him his first job as a lawyer. Jerry Sperry was the city attorney in Stockton in the early ’80s, and hired McNatt as his deputy. He took the position in May 1980.
The job was a tornado of permits: Land use, zoning, planning. Then there were the city code prosecutions, the barking and parking cases. McNatt also worked on federal litigation and a few civil rights lawsuits.
In 1988, McNatt saw an ad in a legal newspaper that the City of Lodi was looking for a new city attorney. With the promise of a smaller office to manage and one deputy attorney, McNatt made the move to Lodi.
During his seven years with the city, McNatt watched the Downtown district completely revitalize. He remembers heading to Garry’s Lounge after city council meetings to debrief with other staff, and there was no one else inside.
“You could shoot a cannonball down School Street and no one would notice,” he recalled. When the city council heard from a movie theater that wanted to come to Lodi, they were insistent that it be located in Downtown.
Fomer mayor and city councilman Steve Mann remembers McNatt as astute and articulate, unafraid of tackling a tough case.
“While I was on the council, he served the city very well. He was instrumental, from a legal perspective, in making Downtown revitalization happen,” he said. “You’d have to look pretty hard to find someone with an ill word to say about Bob McNatt at the Stockton court or around town in Lodi.”
Another hallmark of McNatt’s time with the city was when the council passed a no smoking ordinance for all the bars, shops, and restaurants. Lodi was the first city in California to pass that law, and it inspired calls and interviews across the country. The council was both praised and criticized, but McNatt considered them to be on the cutting edge.
Making the tough decisions
That boredom started kicking around in McNatt’s brain again in 1995.
He was having dinner with some fellow attorneys, and someone mentioned how many judges were retiring from the San Joaquin County Superior Court. McNatt decided to submit his name to the Governor’s Office to try for the job.
The process was grueling. McNatt had to fill out a huge packet listing everywhere he had ever practiced law and every attorney he had ever opposed.
Then his application was announced, and members of the community were allowed to contributed to a “ding sheet.”
It’s a list of everyone he had ever irritated as an attorney. McNatt had to appear in front of a panel and respond to each complaint.
“It was like having bamboo shoots shoved under my nails and set on fire. You never hear about the good. They want to talk about the bad stuff,” he said.
Since most of the local bar is made up of criminal lawyers, the majority of respondents didn’t know who McNatt was. He had spent his 15 years working as a civil lawyer for cities.
McNatt made it through the panel and was appointed a judge of the San Joaquin County Superior Court in 1995. At his swearing in, mentor Connie Callahan, who is now a Ninth Circuit Court judge, gave him some advice.
“She said, ‘You should really enjoy today. This is the only time everyone leaving the courtroom will be happy with you,’” he said.
Peggy McNatt was thrilled when her husband was appointed, and a little in disbelief.
“It’s not something we ever envisioned from the beginning,” she said. “As his career went along, he seemed to come in contact with people who thought he was destined for great things.”
McNatt started in small claims court, which remains one of the more satisfying parts of his career. In his mind, that’s where the real justice takes place.
One strange case involved a man with a pet python who bought a live mouse at a pet store to feed the snake. Both the snake and the bag were in the backseat of his car. When he got home, the rodent had chewed through the paper bag and killed the snake by chewing its head clean off. The man was suing the pet store for the price of the snake, and claims they sold him a rat instead of a mouse. McNatt doesn’t remember how that case was decided.
A more emotional case was that of Robert Wendland. The man was in a single car accident, and was in poor condition on life support for months. His wife wanted to pull the plug, recalls McNatt, but the mother didn’t.
It became a significant right-to-die case that reached the California Supreme Court.
When McNatt heard the case in 1995, he had been on the bench for only 3 months. He decided that the wife did not have enough evidence to prove her husband would have wanted to die in that condition.
“It scared me to death. It was a big relief that the higher court supported my decision, but there’s no right answer there,” he said.
McNatt remembers several moments that he made a difference for people. Once he received a letter from a man he had sent to prison.
“He thanked me, told me if I hadn’t sent him to prison he would have died on the street,” said McNatt. “Now he’s cleaned up and has a family. I got choked up when I read that one.”
One inconvenience of the position is the few weeks a year when McNatt was the on-call judge.
“It can be disruptive, getting calls at all hours of the night for emergency protective orders and so on. That was the least favorite aspect for both of us,” Peggy McNatt said.
It wasn’t easy for McNatt to make the transition from attorney to judge. Attorneys are advocates, while judges have to remain objective.
“I have scar tissue on my tongue from biting it,” he said. “I feel privileged to work with the group I have. We’re the most cohesive bench in California, and we call each other regularly for help.”
A new chapter
That close-knit group lost a member on June 1. McNatt is now well into retirement. That means traveling with his wife and working on jewelry in his home studio. Their children Jamie McNatt, 32, and Katie McNatt, 35, are working on opening a bar in Seattle. This month, their biggest decision is where to travel next with Peggy McNatt’s brother, a pilot, and his wife.
McNatt hasn’t given up his robes just yet. He has taken on a few assignments filling in for other judges while driving around California in his new Toyota Tundra pickup — a retirement present to himself.
His slogan: Have gavel, will travel.
“I never used a gavel, though. I always thought I could control the courtroom with the force of my personality,” he said.
When he’s not borrowing a bench, McNatt plans to “play golf badly, ski clumsily and play music with friends.”
He also crafts jewelry using lost wax casting techniques, and loves working with opals.
His career has been a good one, and McNatt is satisfied that he’s been able to make a positive impact.
A bit of a Disney fan, and history buff, there’s one perfect way for McNatt to describe his life:
“It sure has been an E-Ticket ride.”