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Arguelles Ends 25 Years on Bench

May 04, 1989|PHILIP HAGER | Times Staff Writer

The telephone call came 25 years ago, while an ambitious, young lawyer was trying a case in court. He was summoned suddenly to the judge's chambers, handed the phone and heard a voice say, "One moment for the governor, please."

Then the voice of Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown came on the line and the attorney learned he was being appointed to the municipal bench in East Los Angeles, making him feel "about 10 feet tall," as he recounted later. Soon, the appointment was announced publicly and the congratulatory calls came streaming into his Montebello law office.

But suddenly, at mid-morning, the telephone stopped ringing. It was Nov. 22, 1963. President John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated in Dallas. A joyous occasion had come to a stunning halt and the lawyer was to take judicial office while he and the nation mourned.

Those were the bittersweet memories still foremost in the mind of Justice John A. Arguelles as he concluded a quarter-century on the state bench and retired, at age 61, from the California Supreme Court. A graduate of UCLA School of Law, Arguelles was only the second Latino to serve on the state high court. The first, Cruz Reynoso, was defeated in the November, 1986, election.

Arguelles grew up in East Los Angeles and attended Garfield High School. His Mexican-born father was an accountant trained at Columbia University; his mother was born and college-educated in Oklahoma, the daughter of a lawyer.

After service in the Navy, Arguelles entered UCLA to study economics on the GI Bill, commuting to class in a car pool with fellow students between East Los Angeles and Westwood. Then he entered law school, helping finance his legal education with a job at a local securities firm.

After graduation, Arguelles decided to return to East Los Angeles to practice law, eventually joining a firm that included three USC graduates, all of whom eventually became judges. "I really enjoyed practicing in East Los Angeles," he said. "I liked the rich diversity of the people of the area and felt very comfortable practicing there."

Later he was elected to the Montebello City Council by what was then the largest popular vote in the city's history. Then came the call from Gov. Brown; at age 36 he was named to the bench.

'Incredible Changes'

"The changes are just incredible," the justice said as he reflected recently on his life as a lawyer and a judicial career that took him from the Municipal Court, the Superior Court and the state Court of Appeal before he was named by Gov. George Deukmejian to the state Supreme Court in 1987.

When Arguelles began practicing law in 1955, there were 15,677 active lawyers and 768 judges in California. Now there are 100,358 practicing attorneys and 1,553 judgeships, and parties in civil cases often seek outside mediation or arbitration services or take their disputes before private, or so-called "rent-a-judges" as an alternative to the congested courts.

Judges, lawyers and court aides today no longer must thumb laboriously through law books, but use computers and other technological shortcuts in performing research and other legal work. "Many judges are starting to use computers right on the bench," he noted. "They can press a button and find out what a witness said several days before."

But another change, and a heartening one for Arguelles, is the steady influx of minorities and women into law. When Arguelles graduated from law school in 1954, there were only two women in a class of 100. Last year, as he gave the commencement address at the school, he learned that nearly half the student body was female. "One could make the persuasive argument that in another 25 years, the legal profession could be female-dominated," he said.

Progress Is Slow

Meanwhile, the number of minorities in law school has grown throughout the United States, currently numbering about 11% of total law school enrollment.

Arguelles acknowledges that for many, progress is slow to come. "It probably has been slower than members of minority groups would have wanted," he said in an interview in his chambers at the court's San Francisco headquarters. "I imagine that's going to change. How fast, I don't know. But I think there is an increasing awareness of the positive role that representations of minorities and women can play in a law firm or within any governmental body."

"I'm all for progress by minorities within any of the professions. But I agree with Jaime Escalante (the Garfield High School mathematics teacher portrayed in the film 'Stand and Deliver'). I think that minority persons are capable of great achievement. But they not only have to have the motivation, but they also must be willing to make the commitment to maintain the highest standards of the profession."

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