SANDPOINT — An enduring force in Idaho’s legal community dimmed on Monday.
Phil Robinson, former Bonner County prosecutor and civil counsel for several cities, died at a University of Arizona hospital in Tucson following an extended battle with cancer. He was 67 years old.
Services are tentatively planned for May 18 in Sandpoint. He is survived by his wife, Carol; a daughter, Amy; a son, Michael; and five granddaughters.
“Bonner County has lost a good man. I have lost a good friend,” said Bonner County Clerk Marie Scott.
The lifelong Bonner County resident leaves behind a lasting legacy as a respected attorney and skilled prosecutor who possessed a scalpel-sharp intellect and a sense of humor that left people aching with laughter.
“He had a really fine sense of right and wrong, and even when other attorneys in court opposed him in court they had great respect for him,” said retired 1st District Judge Dar Cogswell, who served on bench from 1967 to 1987.
Robinson graduated from Sandpoint High School in 1964, earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Idaho four years later. After receiving his law degree from the U of I in 1970, Robinson served in the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps in Rhode Island, Texas and California.
Robinson was appointed a Bonner County deputy prosecutor in 1977 and elected prosecutor in 1982, 1984, 1988 and 1996, 2000 and 2004. Thereafter, he served as a deputy prosecutor and an attorney in private practice.
He was a former board member of the Idaho Trial Lawyer’s Association and former president of the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association.
During his lengthy tenure in Bonner County, Robinson developed a reputation as a fearless attorney and skilled tactician who was adept at reading juries.
Longtime Sandpoint defense attorney Fred Palmer said Robinson made excellent charging decisions and knew when to negotiate and when to litigate.
“He was never afraid to go to trial. He knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em, but I never saw him intimidated and he wasn’t afraid to try a case against the biggest attorneys in the state,” said Palmer.
Palmer recalled Robinson’s ability to speak extemporaneously during final arguments or even cross-examinations, without having to refer to notes.
“It showed me that he kept it all upstairs — that’s not easy to do,” Palmer said.
Friend and former Bonner County Coroner Dale Coffelt remembers that Robinson was a tireless worker who tangled with white supremacists and anti-government radicals. Coffelt said Robinson could always to be counted on to be at the scene of a deadly accident or homicide no matter what the hour.
“It would be two o’clock in the morning and Phil was always there,” said Coffelt. “He worked incredible hours.”
Coffelt said Robinson was also loyal to colleagues and friends, approachable and caring.
“He supported the community in so many ways — seen and unseen,” said Coffelt.
Moreover, Robinson gained a reputation for his sense of humor. Descriptions range everywhere from “mischievous,” to “ribald” and “off the wall,” depending whom you ask.
“Everybody appreciated his sense of humor. A lot of times he would — with humor — cool things down that were getting out of hand, which can happen really fast on the cases that he handled,” said Cogswell.
He was also a clever wind-up artist.
Palmer remembers a divorce client’s husband refused to leave his office in the mid-1990s and was escorted out. The man put his foot on the threshold of the doorway and the door hit the man’s foot.
A week later, Palmer received an assault complaint signed by Robinson ordering him to surrender at the sheriff’s office or face arrest.
“I suspected this was a joke, but wasn’t sure. Phil let me twist in the wind for a few days,” said Palmer.
When Palmer called to explain himself, Robinson attempted to keep the ruse going, but ultimately couldn’t contain his laughter.
“He loved doing that. He would take people as far as he could,” said Helen Newton, a former Sandpoint city clerk who worked with Robinson when he was the city’s counsel.
Newton isn’t certain that Robinson was able to keep his comedic bent entirely in check during court proceedings.
“Even then I suspect he slipped a few things in,” she said.
Friends and colleagues admit some of Robinson’s most memorable gags were done on the sly and could leave those who didn’t know his brand of humor aghast.
“The stories we can’t tell, let’s put it that way,” said Coffelt.