The first time R. Kenton Musgrave talked to Ronald Reagan was more than 40 years ago, when Reagan was a movie star and Musgrave was a student at the University of Florida.
"I called to ask him to judge a beauty contest," the Palos Verdes Estates attorney recalled, and Reagan agreed to go to Florida and do it.
The next time they talked was a week ago, when the President called Musgrave to say he was nominating Musgrave to the U. S. Court of International Trade. The court, based in New York City, hears appeals to government rulings in cases involving illegal importation of underpriced foreign products into the United States.
After being reminded of the beauty contest, "he observed that we did go back a long way," Musgrave said.
Experienced in Trade
Musgrave, 59, who retired from practicing law two years ago, said he was involved in international trade and other global business transactions most of his career. He was house counsel for major corporations including Vivitar, the camera manufacturer, Lockheed International and Mattel Toys, which acquired Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus, where he became a director.
The nine-judge court hears between 400 and 500 cases a year, he said.
The typical defendant is U.S Customs and often involves an importer who feels aggrieved because the customs service does not charge the correct amount of duty to another importer, or has failed to bar an illegal import, he said.
Most cases involve product "dumping," in which a foreign country exports items to the United States below cost or below the domestic sales price, and products subsidized by foreign governments.
It is unfair because the American government does not subsidize manufacturers, Musgrave said.
Although he is not a member of any political party, Musgrave said he considers himself a Republican and is happy to get a chance to perform public service in an area in which he is interested.
Salary, he said, is not a consideration. In fact, he said he doesn't know exactly what he will earn as a judge but estimated it at $90,000 a year.
Musgrave was born in Clearwater, Fla., and received a B.A. from the University of Washington in 1948 and a law degree from Emory University in Atlanta in 1953. Even though law has been his profession, he has lived a life of diversity: flying from the age of 12, sailing and yacht racing, roping wild elephants in Africa and studying dolphins in Australia.
When he was with Hawthorne-based Mattel, Musgrave negotiated the company's purchase of Ringling Bros., became a director of the circus, and was named executive vice president of Circus World, a theme park near Orlando, Fla., that has since closed.
As a business venture in the mid-1970s, Musgrave bought 80 turn-of-the-century trolley cars in several foreign countries with plans to sell them to cities, resorts and theme parks as tourist attractions. But no one wanted them, he said, and he lost several thousand dollars.
Animals have occupied much of his time in recent years. He works with charity groups--actress Betty White is an associate--seeking cures for diseases of cats, dogs and horses, and finding alternatives to the use of animals in medical research.
During May, he was in Shark Bay on the west coast of Australia studying dolphins. "They come in to share and interact with humans," he said. "They accept food, play with the people, nudge them and smile."
Saved Young Elephants
The elephant-roping adventure occurred a few years ago after elephants began destroying a park in East Africa and were going to be killed. "We got a permit to catch the young ones and we sent them to game parks in England and Western Europe," he said. "They were the lucky ones."
Musgrave said the aim of the Morris Animal Foundation and other groups he works with is to rescue abandoned pets, fight animal diseases, and control the animal population.
"We also are looking for ways to reduce the suffering of lab animals, but we are not a radical group advocating burning of labs and stealing of animals," he said.
Because he is about to become a trade court judge, Musgrave would not comment on trade issues other than to say that disputes between the United States and foreign countries will not cease even with the passage of pending trade bills.
May Not Move for Awhile
In any case, it might be awhile before he and his wife, Ruth, move to New York, Musgrave said. They will keep their Palos Verdes Estates home.
He said the Senate Judiciary Committee may not vote on confirming him to the life-tenure post until it decides on the nomination of U.S. Appeals Court Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court, which is expected to be a lengthy battle.
Musgrave was recommended to the President by Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) based on endorsements by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the Customs Law Committee of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., the national Customs and International Trade Bar Assn. and attorneys specializing in international trade, according to Ira Goldman, Wilson's legal counsel, who called Musgrave "well qualified."
Goldman said it is important that the court have a West Coast representative because its rulings affect the ports. "Trade is business," he said.