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."

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