Appeals court justice dies at 73

David Sills, the former presiding justice of the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana who also served as mayor of Irvine, has died.

Sills succumbed to cancer last week. He was 73.

"Presiding Justice Sills led a remarkable life," Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a prepared statement. "He was an acclaimed jurist, a courageous veteran, a respected mayor and an exemplary branch leader. I send my thoughts and prayers to his family."

Sills, born and raised in Illinois, was appointed to the state Court of Appeal bench by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1990.

In the last few years, Sills ruled on some of the biggest cases to come through Newport-Mesa.

He sided with the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in a property-rights case with a Newport Beach congregation, nullified the sale of KOCE in 2006 and upheld the conviction and sentence for a Newport Beach teen and his two friends who recorded themselves sexually assaulting a high school girl.

He wrote more than 2,400 majority opinions for the court and was known as a consensus builder, the Los Angeles Times reported.

For the last 21 years, Sills worked with Jeff Calkins at the federal courthouse in Santa Ana. Calkins recalled that Sills once had a spoof poster of "Casablanca" made featuring Humphrey Bogart; Sills knew he bore a resemblance to the famous actor.

"You might not know it to look at him, jowls and all, but Justice Sills had one of the greatest senses of humor of anyone I have ever known," Calkins wrote in an email. "Justice Sills could not have written what he did without his sense of humor.

"That sense of humor gave him a great sense of jurisprudential proportionality — justice — as well as a great sense of equanimity in facing the normal crises of administering the court."

Personally, friends and colleagues said Sills was a reassuring presence, even if not particularly outspoken.

"He so rarely said a whole lot that when he did speak it was very meaningful and timely," said Amber Houchen, operations manager for the Irvine Health Foundation (IHF), where Sills was chairman. "His sense of humor came out at random times. Most times he was very stoic. He said things when they needed to be said ... his timing was perfect."

Sills presided over Houchen's wedding and helped found the IHF. The organization has provided more than $25 million in grants to county residents with mental, physical and emotional needs.

He was also on the Irvine City Council from 1976-85, and was mayor four times.

The justice's legacy will also be cemented in education, through his work in bringing a law school to UC Irvine.

"It was a process with many ups and downs until in 2007, [when] the regents of the University of California approved the law school," law school Dean Erwin Chemerinsky wrote in an email. "The reality is that there wouldn't be a UCI Law School without the efforts of David Sills. And he was a tremendous supporter of the school in every way possible."

Sills was born in Peoria, Ill., in 1938. In 1959 he graduated with a degree in political science from Bradley University in Peoria and earned his law degree from the University of Illinois College of Law in 1961.

As an Eagle Scout, Sills first visited Orange County in 1953 as part of a Boy Scout Jamboree that took place in the area that would later become Fashion Island, UCI officials said.

Sills joined the Marine Corps and attained the rank of captain. He served as a platoon and company commander, and battalion staff officer before being discharged in 1965.

He enjoyed golfing, jogging, woodworking, history and traveling in his spare time, Calkins said.

Sills is survived by his wife, Susan, and brother Dan.

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