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The Verdict Is In on Judge Wapner

August 16, 1987

In 30 years as a subscriber to The Times I've never had the slightest desire before to write a letter to the editor. On the other hand, I've never seen anything in The Times quite as inane as the comments attributed to television critics Tom Shales, John Carmen and Tom Jicha in the Aug. 6 article about Judge Joseph Wapner (" 'People's Court' Judge Wapner Sparks $75-Million Debate" by Gary Libman).

These learned gentlemen, apparently armed with nothing more than a profound ignorance of the world around them, compared Judge Wapner's assignment to disburse a $75-million settlement against Caltrans to having Perry Mason plead a real case before the Supreme Court or to taking medical advice from an actor because he plays a doctor on television.

To those of us who practice before the courts of California, it is Shales, Carmen and Jicha who have a little difficulty separating television fiction from reality. During his active 20-year tenure as a trial judge with the Los Angeles Superior Court, Judge Wapner was generally regarded as one of its most distinguished jurists. He held down virtually every difficult judicial post available to a Superior Court judge (as well as serving on the California Court of Appeal by special appointment by the Chief Justice of California), consistently handling his duties with distinction. Among his assignments was that of presiding judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court. He was elected to that position by his fellow judges, evidencing quite clearly the high regard in which he was held by his peers on the bench.

Because of the congestion in California trial courts and the need to utilize the judicial services of distinguished jurists who have retired from the bench to return to private practice, it has become a common practice for attorneys whose clients need a prompt resolution to complex legal problems to agree to the assignment of a mutually respected retired judge to serve as a "private" judge.

Whenever trial attorneys meet to discuss the possibility of agreeing to assign a private judge to a case, Judge Wapner's name is inevitably among those one of us suggests. But for his television duties, there is very little doubt that, if he chose to, Judge Wapner would be asked to adjudicate such matters five and six days a week, 12 months a year, limited only by his willingness to serve.

DAVID MANNING CHODOS

Los Angeles

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