Former Crimson President Stephen R. Barnett ’57, a First Amendment professor emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Law, died last Tuesday after complications from a cardiac arrest. He was 73.
Colleagues remember the prominent critic of the California state court system as a “mainstream gadfly,” who frequently dissented at the law school’s faculty meetings.
“He was not afraid of controversy in a way that most of his colleagues understood and usually appreciated,” said Berkeley law school professor Richard M. Buxbaum, who had known Barnett for 40 years.
Since he joined the law school faculty in 1967, Barnett was known to champion the freedom of the press and to levy harsh criticisms against the California Supreme Court’s decision making process.
But details of Barnett’s professional pursuits often escaped Karine, his wife of eight years, who said she had not known about the bulk of his accomplishments until she read his obituaries. Karine recalled a different Steve—a peaceful and quiet presence in the home.
“He was very shy, very humble, very private,” Karine said. “He wasn’t very talkative. You could hardly get even an ‘I love you’ from him.”
Barnett would often be completely absorbed in his work that he brought home, Karine recalled, sometimes not realizing his son was trying to talk to him.
But Barnett’s professional experience proved to be influential in his stepson’s recent decision to study criminal justice, Karine said.
Despite Barnett’s reserved demeanor with his family, colleagues and former students remember his sharp wit and engaging conversations.
“Some professors are extremely warm and fuzzy,” said Jess Bravin ’87, Supreme Court correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and former Crimson editor. “He was a sardonic, somewhat irascible character ... [but] very accessible, and quite concerned with students.”
Barnett once told his class of first-year students to “grow up” so they could face the often gruesome issues they would likely be dealing with in litigation.
Born on Dec. 25, 1935, in Brooklyn, New York, Barnett was raised in West Hartford, Conn. and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, where he was president of the Harvard Crimson for only two months. The College asked him to step down after he was caught sneaking his girlfriend through a tunnel from his dormitory past the 8 p.m. curfew.
Barnett graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1962 and later clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr.
Longtime friend and former president of the California State Bar Jeff Bleich said he would miss the unmistakable twinkle in Barnett’s eyes when catching others off guard in the middle of a debate.
“He loved causes, and he didn’t let go of them easily,” Bleich said. “He was always willing to poke at sacred cows.”
Barnett is survived by his wife, Karine, their son, Alexander, 5, and his stepson, Levon, 23.