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'We have this fantasy that one day all the cases will be done.' : Good Cases, Ocean Air Lure Jurists to the Beach

June 08, 1989|MATHIS CHAZANOV | Times Staff Writer

Who wouldn't want to work at 1725 Main St., Santa Monica, a stone's throw from the Pacific?

There are some drawbacks to working at the Santa Monica Courthouse. It is run down, crowded and vulnerable to security breaches.

But Superior Court judges will wait for years to transfer to the bench by the beach, where fresh air, good cases and the prospect of a short commute recently lured three veteran jurists from other jurisdictions.

They are: Joel Rudof, from the Superior Court in Van Nuys, who will specialize in pretrial settlements of civil suits; Jack M. Newman, from the Central District downtown, an expert on procedure whose full-time assignment is hearing pretrial motions, and Robert T. Altman, also from the Central District, a former prosecutor who heard his first civil case last month but is expected to concentrate on criminal trials.

Altman and Rudof are Westside residents who relish the chance to work close to home, and Newman spends much of his free time on the Westside working on charitable causes. Rudof, 66, even commutes by bicycle. On the bench, his judicial robe conceals the casual cyclist's jacket underneath.

Relentless Pressure

But the pace at Santa Monica Superior Court is hardly laid-back. With the court system jammed countywide, there is relentless pressure to settle out of court or send cases out for arbitration.

If that fails, civil suits generally must go to trial within five years or be dismissed, and judges are pressed to hear as many cases as possible. The caseload is so great that hotel conference rooms have been booked through next fall so that retired judges working part time can hold court in them.

"There is no downtime between cases. We are constantly zapping away at trials," said Presiding Judge David M. Rothman. "It would be nice if you could be leisurely and give everybody tremendous time to cogitate, but we don't have that luxury."

He said his new colleagues were eminent in their specialties and welcome additions to his roster of overburdened judges.

Altman, 49, a tennis player, married and the father of two teen-age daughters, comes from a assignment that was as high-pressured as any in the Los Angeles Superior Courts.

For two years he heard major criminal cases without a jury. The cases involved murder, rape, child molestation, complex fraud and other crimes in which both sides felt they were better off if the defendants waived their right to a jury trial.

Without a jury, the cases moved quickly, but the pace was grueling.

"The program became too popular, at least for me," Altman said. His calendar was booked two months in advance, and he had to finish each trial in the time allotted for it or else reschedule his entire calendar.

Grueling Pace

"I had to get done faster and faster in the day. I went through three clerks," he said. "The pressure was unbelievable. When I went home at night I couldn't slow down."

When the chance came to move to the court's West District at the beginning of May, Altman, a Cheviot Hills resident, grabbed it.

He had worked in the building in the 1970s as a deputy district attorney. He successfully prosecuted Eddy Wein, the so-called "watch stem rapist."

Wein had been sentenced to death in the 1950s, but his sentence was reduced to life in prison. Twenty years later, one woman was killed and another was attacked by a man who used an unusual technique: knocking on a door, dropping his timepiece if a woman answered and overpowering her with a knife to the neck when she bent down to help him find it.

A retired detective remembered that this had been Wein's distinctive modus operandi two decades earlier, but he thought Wein had been executed. Wein had been paroled six months earlier, however, and he was quickly arrested.

"We had to find the victims from the '50s to testify against him. It was really dramatic," Altman said.

Quick Adjustments

After 18 years immersed in criminal law--11 as a prosecutor and seven as a judge--Altman had to make some quick adjustments during his first civil trial, shortly after he moved to Santa Monica. At one point, he called on counsel for "the people" instead of the plaintiff to make closing arguments.

But Altman, a graduate of UCLA and Harvard Law School, said he was eager to master a new branch of jurisprudence. Despite his devotion to criminal law, he said he hoped to continue hearing some civil trials.

"We get cases that would cross a rabbi's eyes," he said.

In his 13 years on the bench, nine of them in Superior Court, Jack M. Newman has heard some puzzling and highly publicized cases, most notably perhaps that of Elizabeth Bouvia, a quadriplegic whose desire to die raised thorny questions of medical ethics.

Register Voters

He angered County Supervisor Pete Schabarum when he ordered county officials to deputize thousands of employees to register low-income and minority voters.

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