Wielding Influence Outside Courtroom

When federal judge Kim M. Wardlaw and her attorney husband, Bill, stole away for a quiet weekend in Napa Valley several years ago, they helped chart the future of Los Angeles.

The two got to talking about who would be the best choice for L.A.'s next mayor, and lit on the name Richard Riordan.

The idea of political office had never crossed the mind of Riordan, an attorney and businessman who was relatively unknown to voters. But the Wardlaws returned from their 1991 getaway and convinced Riordan that the city would be a better place if he ran for mayor.

Since then, Kim Wardlaw, who at the time was a litigator and partner at O'Melveny & Myers, has become a judge first on the U.S. District Court and later on the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The influence she and her husband wield is enormous, and not just over federal law and L.A. politics. When Bill Clinton recently visited the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, she had no problem getting face time with the president, having worked on his California campaign before she became a judge.

All judges in the court system whether Municipal, Superior or federal wield a significant amount of power. They make decisions that can break up families, create an adoption or sentence a person to death. They can issue warrants allowing police officers to search a person's home. They can decide whether you pay that traffic fine you swear you didn't deserve. In a divorce, they decide who keeps the kids, the car and the cottage.

"The law touches every aspect of our lives in its most intimate realms," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor of political science and law at the University of Southern California. "Judges have tremendous discretion."

But then there are the judges whose power extends well beyond their courtrooms. After interviewing dozens of legal insiders, the Business Journal identified 25 of the most powerful judges in L.A., based on such criteria as political connections, the ability to draw important cases, the potential for further advancement, and clout within the legal system. Their clout can be exercised in several ways, from determining the fate of multimillion-dollar disputes to interpreting the U.S. Constitution.

Influence off the bench

"It's important not to appear partisan," said William Norris, a former U.S. Ninth District Court of Appeals judge. "But informally, to be sure, judges can have real influence. They have a lot of independent power. (Certain judges) are very influential outside the court. They are consulted on other judicial appointments. And they are very comfortable with the political process."

Those on the federal bench tend to have the most power perhaps because they are appointed for life and thus have more leeway than Superior Court judges, who are appointed by the governor and then elected.

In the 1970s, U.S. District Court Judge William M. Byrne Jr. rubbed shoulders with then-President Richard Nixon, visiting the Western White House in San Clemente when the president was in town. Supposedly, they talked about Byrne's desire to become FBI director. But Byrne said he didn't let that impact his legal decisions.

Byrne was presiding over the trial of Rand Corp. researcher Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the "Pentagon Papers" to The New York Times. After it became apparent that Nixon aides had broken into Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office to steal his files, Byrne threw out all charges against Ellsberg.

Federal judges don't just have political connections and the ability to alter the law of the land they can disseminate their own ideas, on everything from equal rights to extreme sports. When you're on the federal bench, reporters with national newspapers take your phone calls.

Stephen R. Reinhardt, a liberal Democrat and former labor lawyer appointed 20 years ago to the U.S. Ninth District Court of Appeals, has been using his judicial pedestal for years to champion his social and political causes.

He doesn't shy away from criticizing the Clinton administration for failing to appoint minorities to the court. In return, he has been lambasted by conservatives for openly opposing the death sentence, and roundly criticized for his ruling a few years ago that knocked down the state of Washington's ban on physician-assisted suicide. It reopened the euthanasia debate, but his decision later was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some unlikely pursuits

Another high-profile judge who isn't shy about speaking out is Reinhardt's friend and colorful colleague Alex Kozinski, who also sits on the U.S. Ninth District Court of Appeals. The politically conservative Kozinski, born in Romania, is angling for an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that doesn't keep him from writing video-game reviews in magazines or honing his skills as an amateur magician.

He also has a favorite pastime extreme sports. He has written nationally published articles about bungee jumping and snowboarding, noting that skiing is dead.

He is an outspoken advocate of the death penalty. In two opinions that generated headlines, he wrote decisions rejecting appeals for stays of execution. He, like many federal judges, eyes each judicial decision as a way to change the law of the nation and society.

"Federal circuit court judges have enormous power in our system of government, contingent upon U.S. Supreme Court review," said Norris, who served on the court of appeals for 17 years. "They have the power to say what the Constitution means as applied to particular cases."

For U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr., that means taking on cases that affect the poor, minority groups and immigrants. Right now he is in the middle of a fight that will determine the future of L.A.'s public transportation system.

He was faced with a basic if not especially scholarly question: How many new buses should the city buy? Bus riders, fed up with overcrowded vehicles that snake slowly along the city's streets, demanded in a lawsuit that the Metropolitan Transit Authority purchase hundreds more buses to improve service.

The MTA balked. The judge ruled. The MTA was ordered to buy 248 buses and put an identical number of temporary buses on the street, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $240 million for five years. A two-judge panel of the U.S. Ninth District Court of Appeals recently granted a temporary stay on the federal order.

"I know we affect people's lives," Hatter said. "I always think about it."

Big trials, big impact

In California, federal judges' powers have broadened because of an increase in statewide ballot measures, which are frequently challenged in court. When 60 percent of California voters approved Proposition 187, banning illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits such as health care and education, U.S. District Judge Mariana R. Pfaelzer ruled that most of the initiative was unconstitutional.

Of course, judges below the federal level can wield more than their share of influence. Superior Court judges have less political clout, but touch people's lives just as deeply.

"We preside over major, major matters," said Victor E. Chavez, presiding judge of Los Angeles Superior Court, the largest trial court of general jurisdiction in the United States, with 429 judges.

Those range from business litigation and civil lawsuits to robberies and murder. Who can forget the months of testimony in the O.J. Simpson murder trial that kept people riveted to their television sets?

Superior Court Judge Lance Ito wielded his power by determining exactly how much evidence could be entered into the proceeding. "In the O.J. Simpson trial, Ito would have let in a ham sandwich," observed Sheldon Sloan, a former Municipal Court judge and practicing attorney. "If he had been more restrictive of the evidence, some of the stuff the defense was arguing in that case wouldn't have been as good."

Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler is presiding over the high-profile scandal involving the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division, in which defense attorneys allege that police planted evidence and made false arrests in a number of drug-related cases. As a result, scores of convictions may be dropped against convicted criminals, and the city is being sued for as much as $125 million.

But for many, the most influential judges are probably those who reign in the smaller courts.

"Where the individual feels the impact of judges is in small-claims courts," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. "People come in squabbling with their neighbors, and that is most people's contact with justice. Or in traffic court. That is literally the people's court."

Staff reporter John Brinsley contributed to this story.

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