It is a rare and lucky person who realizes their life's work early and retains an undimmed passion for that work over a 50-year career. Tom Nolan was one such rare and lucky person. A lifelong criminal defense attorney and longtime Stanford Law lecturer, he embodied dedication, grit, and heart, inspiring generations of upcoming criminal defense lawyers and advocates to follow in his footsteps
Born Thomas Joseph Nolan, III on March 10, 1945 in Fresno, California, Tom's mother Jeanada Hamilton worked as a social worker and educator. Tom's father, Thomas Joseph Nolan, II, a second-generation immigrant from Ireland, worked for the California Department of Real Estate.
Tom's upbringing instilled a keen sense of social justice that he carried throughout his life. After moving there as a child, Tom became a true product of Sacramento. He attended Sacramento High School, Sacramento City College, and Sacramento State before becoming a member of the second class of students to receive their law degrees from UC Davis. Graduating in 1970, Tom set out to build a career committed to the passionate and sophisticated defense of the accused.
Tom could smell injustice a mile away and was dedicated to ensuring that everyone, no matter their situation, was entitled to representation. Not one to take orders from anyone, Tom started his own practice directly out of law school. He worked for the San Mateo County Private Defender Program and quickly gained the respect and admiration of his peers and clients. Tom always placed the individual, their complexities, their humanity, and their rights at the center of each case and took every opportunity to highlight an issue that would not only help his client, but other defendants as well.
Early in his career, Tom worked elbow to elbow with the renowned civil rights attorney Charles R. Garry in the complex and politically charged, months-long Chino Escape Case trial. The collaboration with Charles Garry prepared Tom well, and he became the lead defense attorney in a number of California's landmark cases, representing the Synanon Organization, U2 bandmember Bono, a defendant in the Billionaire Boys Club trial, and defendants in many of the highest profile cases in the Bay Area. Tom also represented Charles Garry in proceedings before the United States House of Representatives investigating the Peoples Temple massacre.
Tom's success in his early career cemented his status as a leading criminal defense attorney in the state. His extraordinary trial skills, absolute fearlessness, and unique ability to translate complex ideas into simple terms proved invaluable as the region became an emerging hub of technology and technology-related criminal charges. Tom was at the forefront of trying criminal theft of trade secret cases and successfully defended the first federal economic espionage case to go to jury trial in the country.
Among many other accomplishments, Tom was proud to argue for judicial discretion in sentencing in front of the California Supreme Court, to be interviewed on 60 Minutes after trying the very first case in the country involving the use of PCP, and to save a client from the death penalty through an innovative partnership in preparing a social history of his client with the assistance of a professional journalist. These social histories are now standard in capital cases.
Alongside his efforts in the courtroom, Tom made an enduring impact in the legal community by teaching Advanced Criminal Practice to Stanford Law School students. Some of Tom's affiliations included serving as President of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, being a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers and the International College of Trial Lawyers, and being a Board Member of the ACLU of Northern California. Tom was very proud to know that his law partners Dan Barton and Daniel Olmos will continue his legacy at Nolan, Barton & Olmos.
Tom was an accomplished tennis player and enjoyed evenings with friends playing bridge and poker. He was an avid reader, a collector of antiquarian law and crime books and created pottery for relaxation. He loved art and all things Irish. In both his professional and personal lives, Tom was a passionate storyteller and he loved nothing more than to regale his audience with his incredible stories, many of which stemmed from cases and the travels he shared with Susan, his wife of 52 years.
Tom and Susan (Bach) were introduced on a blind date in 1968 and married in 1970. Susan was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and was a student at Mills College when they met. Tom was so proud to be Susan's husband and would be the first to sing her praises. Together they spent time with U.S. and foreign presidents and Supreme Court members, were guests at a White House State Dinner, attended the Olympics, travelled extensively to places such as Africa and the Amazon, discovered Tom's roots in Ireland, and so much more. They raised two children together, Sean Nolan (Kris Koblik) and Heather Nolan (Ronan Brink), and have one grandchild, Cleo Jeanada Nolan.
Tom died of pancreatic cancer with only 6 weeks between diagnosis and passing. The entire family is very grateful for those last weeks together and he was surrounded by love and gratitude when he passed.
To say that Tom changed peoples' lives would be an understatement. His generosity of time, passion, and resources in both his personal and professional life enriched, inspired and saved countless lives. As a young boy in Sacramento, it was more than he could have ever dreamed of.
We will celebrate Tom Nolan's life at 3:00 pm on March 12, 2022, at Paul Brest Hall on the Stanford Campus. In lieu of flowers, the family prefers donations to Project Avary, a local non-profit dedicated to improving life outcomes among children with parents in prison, or to the charity of your choice. If you would like to share memories of Tom please visit his memorial web site at Gathering Us.
Published by San Francisco Chronicle from Feb. 11 to Feb. 14, 2022.
Thomas Joseph Nolan, March 10, 1945 – December 21, 2021, Gathering Us. Link
Project Avary is one of the first nonprofit organizations in the nation dedicated to improving life outcomes among children with parents in prison. Link
Charities at Legacy.com. Link