John J. Merrick did not have the typical background for a judge, but he was not judging typical people.
Merrick was a comedy gag writer before he became the no-nonsense judge of a sleepy community that was growing into a favored home of celebrities. As the lone judge in a judicial district that eventually covered 186 square miles, he presided over front-page marriages and also signed the search warrant that led to the arrest of one of the century's most notorious mass murderers.
When Merrick hung up his judicial robes for the last time, his staff and colleagues at the Malibu courthouse looked as though they were in mourning. Merrick, 67, retired two weeks ago after 22 years as the first and only municipal judge presiding over a district that now stretches from the ocean to Westlake Village, Agoura Hills, Calabasas and Chatsworth Lake.
Court Administrator Robert Steiner said he didn't even want to go to work the following Monday.
"His departure will make a difference," said Richard Brand, who worked with Merrick 12 years as a court commissioner. "We are losing an institution."
To many, Merrick was the judge who looked on skeptically while they tried to talk their way out of tickets for speeding on Pacific Coast Highway.
Malibu's Marryin' Judge
To others, he was the Malibu Marryin' Judge.
It was Merrick who shouted out the vows to actor Sean Penn and singer Madonna on Aug. 16, 1985, when the couple were married in a "secret" wedding ceremony atop a Malibu bluff.
"There were eight helicopters circling overhead with guys hanging out the doors filming. It was like 'Apocalypse Now,' " Merrick recalled. "The three of us knew pretty much what we were doing. But everybody else couldn't hear over the noise."
A quieter ocean-bluff wedding was that of actor William Windom. "He wanted it exactly at sunset under a special olive tree so everybody just stood around waiting for the sun to set," Merrick said. "When they threw the rice, they threw expensive wild rice. The stuff got in my hair and the next morning when I woke up I thought I had bugs on my pillow."
But there were Calabasas cowboys along with the coast's celebrities .
"When I started, the Calabasas and Agoura areas were very rural and horsy and people over there had problems that were unique," he said. "There were a lot of disputes between people over animals."
Topanga Canyon had its wild side, too. For a time, it was home to Buttercup, a lion that lived in a chicken-wire cage.
When nervous canyon residents complained, Merrick traveled into the canyon to look for himself. He found the animal outside the cage, chained to a tree.
"The neighbors took sides, pro-Buttercup and anti-Buttercup. The guy who owned her finally moved out and took the lion with him," he recalled.
Not all his cases can be recalled with a laugh. Merrick signed the search warrant to give police access to the Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, where they arrested Charles Manson. He conducted the preliminary hearing for Manson family member Susan Atkins, who was charged with the murder of Topanga Canyon musician Gary Hinman.
Malibu was primarily a farming community when Merrick moved there in the late '40s. He bought a 55-foot beachfront lot at Latigo Cove for $2,300, he said.
After he was elected judge there in 1964, Merrick kept a Beverly Hills law practice. He also was assigned to sit in municipal courts in Beverly Hills, Inglewood, Santa Monica, Glendale, Indio, Lancaster, Camarillo, Newhall, Los Angeles and Ventura.
"I was known as 'Have Robe, Will Travel,' " Merrick said. When the Malibu district population exceeded 40,000 in 1973, a municipal court was established there and he ended his commuting.
Workload Also Grows
As the district grew, so did Merrick's workload, including arraignments, civil and criminal trials, small claims and traffic cases.
Merrick was no soft touch for the motorists given citations along the coast highway and the mountain roads of the district.
He noted that many defendants ask for trials these days, although they "know full well they are guilty. They are gambling that, by the time it comes to trial, the officer may not be available.
"Someone is charged with going 25 m.p.h. over the speed limit. The officer has been tested and is an expert in estimating speed. Plus, he has radar training and the reading is calibrated. The net result is they waste a lot of everybody's time," he said of the motorists. "I think it's a game. Lawyers are playing games all the time."
He said he sees a changing attitude toward the law, including a willingness to lie in testimony, that has been disheartening.
"I think the oath doesn't mean as much as it should to people," he said. "I have a strong feeling that, when you hear stories which are 180 degrees apart, you know somebody isn't telling the truth.
"There is a certain arrogance now. People are very demanding when they come into court. I think they try to minimize their violations. They don't look at them as seriously as law enforcement looks at them."