VENTURA — John Hunter was one of the best and brightest. An editor of the law review at USC. The youngest judge on the California bench. The elder son of the future prophet of the Mormon Church.
But after his appointment at age 33 to the Ventura County Municipal Court, he got stuck at the lowest rung of the judicial ladder--a step away from the Superior Court, where complicated civil cases were more suited to his ample intellect.
In fact, when Hunter retired from the Municipal Court 3 1/2 years ago, he was better known for his harsh sentences than for his mental prowess.
He gained notoriety in 1989 when now-defunct California Magazine chose him as one of the state's "wackiest judges," noting not only his severe treatment of minor criminals but also the time he had a public defender arrested, handcuffed and dragged before him.
Just months before his September 1992 retirement, attorneys of the county Bar Assn. rated him lowest of 10 regular judges on the Municipal Court, marking him down for demeanor, settlement skills and impartiality. That same year, voters rejected him 2 to 1 in his only run for the Superior Court.
But in the years since he formally retired, Hunter has redeemed his reputation as a jurist, excelling both as a full-time, fill-in Superior Court civil judge and as creator of a highly efficient "fast-track" system to eliminate a years-long backlog of civil cases.
Local trial lawyers have given him a special commendation for his work. His most recent ranking in the Bar Assn. poll was "very good." And colleagues say he is one of the best civil judges on the local bench.
"He literally does the work of two people," said Melinda Johnson, presiding judge of the Superior Court for the last two years. "He does his work more efficiently than almost anybody else could, so we say, 'Thank you, God, for John.' "
Johnson, who tried cases before Hunter years ago when she was a lawyer and he was on the Municipal Court, said it is a shame that he spent so much time on minor cases, where his greatest skills were not needed.
"Even though people would get furious with him, those of us who knew him knew he was extraordinarily bright and practical and hard-working," Johnson said. "But if all you get to do is drunk driving trials, maybe you get a little cranky. . . . With us he has been able to do the kind of work he was always so able to do."
Lawyers who know Hunter well, who have seen him mediate both simple criminal cases and lawsuits of daunting complexity, say he is smart and decisive.
And as an example of his diligence, they cite his return to work within days after his right leg was amputated below the knee last summer. He would call in rulings from his wheelchair at his hilltop Ojai home.
Off the bench, Hunter is widely admired for his good nature and spirit, a devoutly religious man who married his college sweetheart and raised 10 children with her. For 27 of the last 35 years, he has awakened at 5:30 a.m. every weekday to teach teenagers religion before school. He is an Eagle Scout, as are seven of his sons.
Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury insists that there is more to the man than meets the local Bar. "If people only knew the thousands of hours he has spent helping children in the Scouts, they would be astonished," said Bradbury, who has worked with Hunter in Scouting activities for decades.
"He's a very personable guy . . . when he's not on the bench," acknowledged Richard Erwin, a longtime Ventura County public defender and Hunter's archrival before retiring a decade ago.
But Hunter watchers also talk in terms of the Good John and the Bad John.
As a Municipal Court judge, he could turn from amiable and witty to scathing and punitive from one minute to the next. He would lecture attorneys on their shortcomings and regularly slap defendants in jail for minor crimes such as traffic or probation violations.
"There were those who felt very wronged by John and made it very known," recalls Superior Court Judge Steven Z. Perren, who practiced as a lawyer before Hunter. "But I was never the recipient of the Bad John. I saw the Good John. He was so facile and fast that he expected others to perform accordingly. And when they didn't, he didn't have the patience for it, I guess."
Criminal defense attorney George Eskin, who worked for Hunter in the district attorney's office three decades ago and considers him a friend, said he admires the judge's work on the Superior Court.
But for years Eskin refused to allow his clients to be judged by Hunter in Municipal Court, exercising his right to transfer cases to another judge.
"I have a very warm personal affection for him," Eskin said. "But he just had an Achilles' heel when it came to sentencing some people. I don't know what caused him to display a mean-spirited quality, a seeming impatience with people. . . . His attitude was, 'You're going to take responsibility for this, and I'm going to help you take that responsibility.' "