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Feud With D.A. Gives Judge Job He Wanted

December 12, 1985|MARK ARAX | Times Staff Writer

Behind a desk stacked high with pretrial motions, Superior Court Judge Melvin B. Grover recounted with humor his long and bitter feud with the district attorney's office that ended unceremoniously this month with his transfer from Van Nuys to Pasadena Superior Court.

Grover said he had endured a lot of good-natured ribbing during the past several weeks, particularly from fellow members of the Lakeside Golf Club in Toluca Lake.

He joked that members of the exclusive club never quite understood how one of their own could be accused of such transgressions as bias in favor of defendants and a deep-seated distrust of law enforcement.

After all, Grover said, he wasn't exactly the embodiment of a liberal criminal judge handing out lenient sentences.

'Not a Bleeding Heart'

"I'm a Republican, a former police officer and a little bit right of Attila the Hun," Grover said in an interview last week. "I'm sure as hell not a bleeding heart."

Grover's transfer from the criminal court bench in Van Nuys Superior Court, where he sat for three years, to a civil assignment in Pasadena came after the district attorney's office issued a 31-page memorandum in October detailing prosecutor's objections to Grover. The memo alleged that Grover slanted and misapplied the law because of a bias against the state and was "overtly hostile" in questioning prosecution witnesses.

Under state law, either the prosecution or defense can have a judge removed from a case for alleged prejudice. Typically, the procedure is used when a judge is known to have particularly strong feelings about certain crimes, such as rape or drunk driving. Neither the prosecution nor the defense is required to present evidence to support a contention of prejudice.

Effectively Barred

With the memo as justification, the district attorney's office began last month to file "affidavits of prejudice" disqualifying the 64-year-old Grover in one case after another. The unusual move effectively barred Grover from hearing all criminal cases assigned to his courtroom.

But instead of accepting defeat and quietly moving on to a civil court as other judges facing similar situations have done, Grover initially challenged the prosecution's authority to remove him from many of the cases.

Grover rejected more than 20 of the affidavits on the ground that they were not filed at least five days prior to trial, a technicality required by law. For several weeks until his transfer, Grover was able to keep some of the cases on hold.

At one point, relations between the judge and the deputy district attorney assigned to his courtroom so soured that the judge accused the prosecutor in open court of being "a liar" and "a cheat."

An irony underlying the whole matter was that Grover, who had practiced civil law for more than 20 years, had been seeking a transfer to a civil assignment since being named a judge in January, 1982.

"My friends joke that I had to do it the hard way," said Grover, who lives in Studio City with his wife and son, a third-year law student. "I didn't want to be forced out of Van Nuys, but I wanted to be out of criminal. You can hear only so many rape cases, so many child molestation cases. . . . Civil law is definitely my strength."

Grover, who was a sergeant in the Santa Barbara Police Department before joining the California Highway Patrol and working his way through law school, said he hoped the dispute is behind him.

But because backlogs could require Grover to hear criminal cases in Pasadena from time to time, the district attorney's office does not rule out the possibility that the dispute may recur.

"It's something I will deal with" if the need arises, said Beverly Campbell, acting head deputy of the district attorney's Pasadena office, about the prospect of Grover presiding over a criminal case.

"He won't be asked to hear criminal cases except in dire situations," said Judge Robert M. Olson, supervising judge at the Pasadena Superior Court. "If it's going to be a problem, that will arise at the time."

Even before Grover sat down last week to preside over his first case in Pasadena Superior Court, his months-long feud with the district attorney's office had provided grist for break-time conversation among lawyers, bailiffs, court reporters and clerks. A local newspaper heralded his impending arrival with the headline "Controversial judge coming to Pasadena."

Grover said the dispute was less a matter of substance than of personality. He said he took strong exception to the behavior of deputy district attorneys assigned to his courtroom.

"In my day, everyone learned the hard way to respect the court, respect the judge," Grover said. "It's like in the Army. You may not like your commanding officer, but you salute him just the same. I found that lacking in the prosecutors who came before me. . . . They tended to act like little prima donnas.

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