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Family Law : In the History of the California Bench, There's Never Been Anything Quite Like the Byrne Dynasty

November 12, 1989|ADAM DAWSON | Adam Dawson of Santa Monica has covered the Los Angeles judicial system for eight years.

MORE THAN 100 YEARS ago, Irish nationalist Peter Christopher Byrne left his homeland for North America. According to disputed family legend, he settled first in Canada, then moved to Alton, Ill.--one step ahead of authorities who wanted to question him about a cache of weapons in his basement, weapons they believed were bound for Ireland. If the story is true, it may have been the last time a Byrne was on the wrong side of the law. What's undisputed is Peter Christopher's quiet legacy: His grandchildren left the family's traditional railroad jobs and became judges, lawyers, court clerks, bailiffs and probation officers, forming California's first family of law.

One of Peter Christopher's grandsons, William M. (Bill) Byrne, became a California legislator, a Municipal Court judge and a Superior Court judge and, for 24 years, served as a U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles. His stint on the federal bench earned him the family nickname "Federal Bill," because even members of the Byrne clan need a little help telling their judges apart.

Federal Bill's son, Matt Byrne, joined his father on the federal bench in 1971 and is perhaps best known for revealing government misconduct and dismissing all the charges in the Pentagon Papers case in 1973.

One of Federal Bill's nephews, William E. Byrne, retired from the El Dorado County Superior Court three years ago. Dubbed "Placerville Bill," he now is in private practice in Sacramento.

One of Federal Bill's brothers, James T. Byrne, the only Republican in the bunch, served as a Los Angeles Municipal Court commissioner from 1962 until 1974. His son, J. Michael Byrne, left the Los Angeles district attorney's office when he became a municipal judge in 1982. Last year, he won election to the Los Angeles Superior Court, where he is one of 238 judges supervised by--you guessed it--his second cousin, presiding judge Richard (Skip) Byrne.

In all, six Byrnes have been federal or state judges or commissioners, and three sit on the bench today in Los Angeles. "They are throwbacks," Alan Rothenberg, president of the State Bar of California, says of the Byrnes. "They believe in old-fashioned public service."

Or as U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian puts it: "It must be in the genes. Some people are born great artists, others great musicians. This must be something passed down through the generations."

FEDERAL BILL WAS ONE OF eight children of John Byrne, a railroad fireman who settled in Oakland in the late 1800s. Shortly after the turn of the century, a wildcat strike against the railroad cost John his job, but it left him with plenty of time to hang out in Oakland, where, as another family legend has it, he became a drinking partner of author Jack London. John's unemployment and the hard times left their mark on the next generation of Byrnes.

"With my father (James) and his generation, there was a lot of fear of seeing the poverty he grew up in and not wanting to go back to that," says J. Michael Byrne, 46. Thus the lure of public service: It was steady, dependable work for relatively decent pay, open to those with little formal education.

A dropout before reaching high school, Federal Bill became a promising lightweight boxer, then worked as a pool-hall owner, a railroad fireman, a union leader and a state legislator before turning to law. "For him and others like him, there really weren't any great opportunities for advancement other than by going into public service," explains his son, Matt, 59. "Public service did afford an opportunity to play a more significant role in society."

While serving in the California Assembly, Federal Bill attended night courses at Loyola Law School, graduating in 1929. He spent 12 years in private practice, then served on the Municipal and Superior courts before President Harry S. Truman tapped him for the federal bench in 1950.

"He had a reputation for being a rather stern man on the bench," says U.S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp, who tried his first federal case before Federal Bill. "Both the prosecutor and I were rookies," Hupp recalls. But instead of getting the lectures and sarcasm they expected, they found the judge a willing teacher. "He took a fatherly interest in us neophytes--calling us up to the bench to let us know if we were doing the right thing and what we were doing wrong."

Federal Bill did much the same for members of his extended family. "He was a strong figure," says J. Michael, describing his uncle as the family mentor. "At family gatherings, he would discuss with you your career, political affiliations and life as much as your own father."

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