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Controversial Judge Redeems Reputation in Superior Court

Profile: Once rated as one of the state's 'wackiest,' John Hunter is back from retirement and has found his niche.

January 28, 1996|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Loy, a Ventura civil and criminal lawyer, expresses an unabashed affection for Hunter and admiration for his skill as a judge. But he also made sure he kept some types of cases out of Hunter's Municipal Court.

"I love the man. He's a straight-forward, honest guy," Loy said. "He has been ahead of the curve for years. He has demanded that certain kinds of cases not be treated lightly . . . that people be held responsible for their actions."

But Loy would transfer his clients' misdemeanor driving cases out of Hunter's court.

Erwin filed a formal complaint against Hunter with the Commission on Judicial Performance in 1985, citing what he saw as a series of abuses in sentencing over 15 years. Hunter was forced to explain himself, but was not sanctioned.

"He was just so damned tough for a while that he would walk on everybody, but I wouldn't let him walk on me," Erwin said. "He was young when he went on the bench, and he started his smartass business right away. He went right from the D.A's office [to the bench]. A lot of guys take a little time to adjust. . . . It took him longer."

In his more recent role on the Superior Court, however, Hunter's reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

Before leaving the Municipal Court he created a fast-track system that disposes of more than 97% of all new civil cases within a year, far ahead of the two-year mandate under state law.

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And after being selected by Superior Court judges to put their civil cases on the same rapid track, Hunter drafted the rules for a monitoring system that resolves 85% of cases in a year and nearly all of them by the two-year deadline--a record that compares well with the best in the state.

He also heard a dozen motions a day and oversaw a full slate of civil trials. "He ranks right up there with the best [judges]," said Michael A. Morrow, president of the Ventura County Trial Lawyers Assn. "He's pulling more than his weight. In fact, I think the Ventura County justice system would be severely compromised if he wasn't there. We need him. We need two of him."

J. Michael Crowe, a Santa Monica lawyer, said he lost his 1994 case before Hunter but came away impressed.

"We do work all over the state and Judge Hunter is someone we have a lot of respect for," Crowe said. "He's always on top of the case. Some days he was farther along than the lawyers were and coming up with new issues that we had yet to even think about."

That Hunter's stock has soared with his new assignment hardly surprises local attorneys.

"We all thought a long time ago that the Superior Court would be the place for John," Loy said.

Hunter, 59, is a large, amiable man--6-foot-3 and beefy. He walks with a slight limp because of his amputated leg, the result of diabetes he contracted a decade ago.

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His face virtually shines with a pink whiteness. His blue eyes are piercing.

And as he peered imposingly from behind a courtroom bench recently, he said he wanted no part of another newspaper story about him.

"I'm retired," he insisted, even though he has sat as a $397-a-day temporary Superior Court judge since the day he left the Municipal Court in 1992.

He'll probably abandon the public bench for good at the end of this year, he said, to become a private rent-a-judge.

"Twenty-seven years is enough," he said.

In the end, however, Hunter discussed not only his recent successes on the Superior Court but his failings as a judge. Under the crush of time, he has made plenty of errors. "You just have to fix them," he said. And, for a man not known to express regrets, he had a couple.

"One of my failures in life is that I say what I think, and that's got me in some difficulty," he said. "If I were judicious, I would not do that. It's one thing to be a judge, it's another to be judicious . . . That would have been a nice trait [to have], but it's one that I don't possess."

Hunter can't estimate the number of attorneys he has instructed on the proper practice of the law under the bright light of his courtroom.

"It's a lot easier to preside over a trial than to be an attorney for a litigant," he said. "So I try to give the trial lawyer an assist, one way or another. Sometimes they don't like it."

Jeff Bennett, a chief deputy district attorney, was one of those to learn a harsh lesson from Hunter. In his first misdemeanor trial, Bennett asked the wrong question only to be tongue-lashed by Hunter, who told the jury of the young lawyer's ineptitude and declared a mistrial.

That experience motivates Bennett to this day, he said. "The lesson was, 'Be prepared.' "

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Hunter said the courthouse is full of attorneys with "a Judge Hunter story to tell." In many of those cases he would act the same way again, he said. But not in others.

"Like Jeff's incident, I probably didn't have to say anything," he said.

Hunter said he is not sure just where his municipal courtroom demeanor and stiff sentencing came from. But his tenure as the district attorney's chief trial prosecutor probably had an effect, he said.

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