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Judges Court Public at Westwood Forum : Judiciary: Some of the 30 jurists urged pressure on the Legislature to change unpopular laws that guide the bench's rulings.

March 08, 1990|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of 30 local judges shucked their robes and gavels, but maintained their judicial restraint Tuesday night as they fielded questions from the public about what they do and why they do it.

The unprecedented event, one of 70 public forums scheduled around the state during "Meet Your Judges Week," drew about 275 members of the public to Wadsworth Theater in Westwood.

Topics of the questions varied from grandparents' visitation rights to why criminals are paroled before serving their full terms in prison. The answer to the second question--that prisoners are released early under a state law passed by the Legislature and that trial judges have nothing to do with it--was one of their key messages of the evening.

Going to the podium to answer specific questions, judge after judge said in one way or another that they don't have as much power or leeway as the public seems to think, because the Legislature makes the laws and higher courts interpret them.

"If you don't like the system, you have to change it through the state Legislature," said the panel moderator, "People's Court" Judge Joseph Wapner. "Judges can't do it."

The judges also urged the public not to judge the system by what they see in the media, either in fictionalized dramas or news reporting on unusual cases that make headlines.

"The newspapers are not going to tell you about the everyday cases," said Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Connor. "You're seeing the extremes."

At the Westwood forum, 18 Los Angeles County Superior Court judges and one commissioner were joined on the stage by Municipal Court judges (including Wapner's son, Fred, newly appointed to the bench) and commissioners from Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Culver City.

Their stated mission for the evening was to "demystify" the judicial process for citizens. Superior Court Judge David Perez noted that judges, isolated by their canons of ethics and constrained by law from commenting on pending cases, are virtually required by the judicial system to be remote, almost anonymous figures.

Indeed, according to one poll, Wapner, who had a distinguished career on the Superior Court bench before becoming a television star, is better known to the public than U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The barriers between the judiciary and the public are basically impenetrable, Superior Court Judge Sara Radin said when asked, "How can people with no money get in to talk to a judge?"

"No one can just walk in and talk to a judge," she said.

Even at the forum, only written questions were taken and answered, prompting Arthur Sigler of West Los Angeles, who said he had expected a spirited verbal exchange, to contend that he felt "cheated" by the controlled, low-key format.

Some of the judges mingled with the crowd after the two-hour forum ended. Those whose queries went unanswered and who included their address will receive a written answer in the mail, forum organizers promised.

The judicial decorum that permeated the forum was occasionally punctuated by an aside, as when Beverly Hills Municipal Court Judge Judith Stein introduced herself by saying she was not the "Zsa Zsa" judge. (Judge Charles Rubin, who presided at Zsa Zsa Gabor's misdemeanor trial last year, was on the panel Tuesday evening, but no one asked him about the headline-grabbing case.)

Another headline case was clearly on citizens' and the judges' minds, as illustrated by a question put to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge, James Albracht, who hears criminal cases in Santa Monica: What can a judge do to limit long trials?

"The bottom line is--I don't know," Albracht replied, noting his "fine, wise" colleague Superior Court Judge William Pounders' vain efforts to shorten the marathon McMartin Preschool molestation trial.

Albracht said current law and interpretations by higher courts, particularly the state Supreme Court during the tenure of former Chief Justice Rose Bird, have given attorneys a long leash, making it hard "for even a fine judge to clamp down on lawyers." He also said that, if a prosecutor chooses to file an unwieldy 50- or 100-count case, a judge has little power to pare it down.

That answer, however, drew a sharp retort from Wapner, who said it was wrong to blame the higher court or attorneys. "Judges are in charge and you take charge," Wapner insisted.

Superior Court Judge David Rothman, the supervising judge of the Santa Monica courthouse, ended the evening fielding a question that brought a smile to his face. It came from a 15-year-old who was contemplating a career in the judiciary and wanted to know if Rothman would become a judge all over again if given the chance.

"The answer is absolutely," said Rothman. "You touch many lives. . . . The money ain't great. The colleagues are terrific, wonderful, bright people."

Judges are called upon daily to make such decisions as the custody of an infant--"a heart-rending decision," said Rothman. "That's the kind of stuff that the people whom you're looking at do."

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