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PORTRAITS

Busy Judge Recharges Her Batteries by Staying Involved

March 25, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

A few weeks ago, Goldilocks was on trial in the Santa Ana Municipal Court of Judge Tam Nomoto. She was charged with petty theft, trespassing, vandalism, burglary and malicious mischief in the home of the three bears.

Things were not going well for the defendant when her attorney sprang a surprise witness--a forest ranger who testified that Goldilocks had been lost in the woods and he had ordered her to take shelter and stay put in the home of the three bears until he could get help to her.

Goldilocks was unanimously acquitted by the jury, and Nomoto beamed. "No one ever thought of that one before," she said delightedly.

The trial of Goldilocks has been going on in Nomoto's court since 1979, the year Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. appointed her to the bench. It all started because Nomoto's courtroom became the favorite stopping place for local public school students who were being given guided tours of the Municipal Court as an exercise in civics and American government.

"They'd just pop in," recalled Nomoto, "and frequently the trial in progress would be deadly dull. And I would sit there and watch them and think how boring this must be for those kids. It seemed to me that if we were going to do this at all, we should give them something that would make the law interesting to them."

So the judge put Goldilocks on trial.

Ever since, about a dozen times a year, school groups come into Nomoto's courtroom over the noon break to try Goldilocks (or Benedict Arnold for older children). They have been supplied the ground rules and the teacher in charge has cast the major roles. Nomoto presides and the children do everything else--including passing judgment on the guilt or innocence of the defendant.

"It's been an educational experience for me, too," Nomoto said. "I've learned how terrific kids are. We get such a distorted view from the bench because all we see are the bad ones."

But just to make sure the point is driven home, Nomoto has the visiting kids remain in her courtroom when it takes up again after the lunch break. And she schedules a real sentencing session immediately afterward. "I talk to the kids about sentencing after the mock trial. Then they see the real thing."

This procedure catches several of the many facets of this vital young judge: her love for young people and her tireless work with them; a quick and creative mind that looks beyond conventional practices and solutions, and a mental toughness that has won the respect of her peers and law enforcement officials. (She has had two commendations from the California Highway Patrol and has run programs for both the CHP and Santa Ana Police Department to instruct officers on how to testify effectively in court.)

"My first year on the bench," she said without rancor, "they nicknamed me Lotus Blossom. It didn't bother me, although it did offend some of my Asian friends. For whatever it's worth, now they call me the Dragon Lady."

Although she unquestionably looks like Lotus Blossom with her tiny frame, pageboy hairdo and expressive eyes, Nomoto has been moving much too fast throughout her 37 years to fit a nickname that passive. Born in San Francisco to a Japanese mother and fifth-generation Chinese-American father, she hit the ground running. She completed high school in 2 1/2 years, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UC Berkeley in three years and received her law degree from Boalt Hall when she was 22.

She was immediately offered a job by a San Francisco law firm whose senior partner told her she would be an asset to the firm on two counts--as a woman and as an Asian. "I resented that so much I came south and hired out to the first law firm that didn't approach me that way. They really tested me, though. I was the only woman among 44 other attorneys. Their nameplates said Mr. So-and-So ; mine just started with my first name. I got my assignments from secretaries; the men got theirs from senior partners. I was even told to serve coffee once in a staff meeting. I refused."

But things were different at the Orange County counsel's office, where Nomoto--who was then Barbara Tam Thompson, her married name--rose quickly to supervising attorney of the probate division. She had been in the job for three years when Brown appointed her to the bench. She was 28 and going through a divorce. That's when she decided to change her legal name to Nomoto--her mother's family name--and to use her middle name, Tam, "which I always liked better."

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