On her first day handling arraignments in the converted pickle factory, the young judge listened intently to each fanciful tale woven by the 200 or so arrested drunks on the docket. It took nearly eight hours.
At day's end, the crusty old bailiff suggested some of those arrested for public intoxication swapped stories that judges would "buy" and were not the most truthful defendants.
The second day the judge finished the list in less than six hours.
"Ma'am," the bailiff said approvingly, "you did a yeoman job."
Bonnie Lee Martin, 56, has been on the bench for 20 years now, and Wednesday the Los Angeles County Bar Assn. honored her for two decades of exemplary work.
She is the first woman selected as the association's Outstanding Trial Jurist, an award made annually to a state or federal judge in Los Angeles County by the group's Board of Trustees. Recipients of the bronze bust of Solomon are chosen on the basis of legal knowledge and ability, judicial temperament, diligence and dedication to the law, courtroom supervision, and courtesy to witnesses, parties and counsel.
At an award luncheon Wednesday, Martin was praised as a "straight-A performer" throughout her career as attorney, Los Angeles Municipal Court commissioner and judge, and Los Angeles Superior Court judge by a friend of 30 years, former U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Shirley Hufstedler.
Superior Court Presiding Judge-elect Jack Goertzen commended Martin for seeking and conquering heavy workloads in juvenile, criminal, law-and-motion and civil courtrooms and twitted her for pleading for "interesting" case assignments.
"Once in awhile we slip her a fender-bender," the civil assignment judge admitted. "But she has a way around them: She settles them."
The unflappable judicial temperament that led to the award Wednesday once helped Martin shrug off a death threat from the mother of a juvenile she sentenced and has aided her in complex criminal and civil trials such as those of:
- Lionel R. Williams, convicted of murdering actor Sal Mineo.
- Stevie Fields, convicted of murdering USC librarian Rosemary Cobb, (one of only three death penalty cases to be upheld by the state Supreme Court since the death penalty was re-enacted eight years ago).
- And currently, a mammoth civil toxic waste case against BKK Corp. over its West Covina dump in which she made one of the state's earliest rulings that the "deep pockets" initiative approved last June by the voters applies to pending cases. (The Supreme Court has upheld a Northern California decision with opposite results, but the issue is still being contested here.)
Women were a minuscule minority in law when Martin earned her doctor of jurisprudence degree at UCLA in 1954 and master of laws at USC in 1956, but she remembers no career problems caused by her sex. One courtroom opponent did ask why she wasn't home with her babies, and attorney Arthur L. Martin, whom she met when they were deputy attorney generals, refused to marry Bonnie Lee Pearson unless she adopted his name professionally.
She did get married, had the babies (Erica, now a law clerk for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Kevin, a University of California, Berkeley, senior) during two-week vacations, hired a housekeeper and continued practicing law.
"My approach was that if you did it well, acceptance was a natural consequence," she said in an interview. "There is an objective reality about the options open to you, but there is also a lot of subjectivity about how you see yourself."