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California and the West

Liberal Judge Reflects on Life as a Maverick in Conservative Bastion

April 29, 2001|JERRY HICKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Justice Thomas F. Crosby Jr., he of the disarming red bow tie perched above his black robe, still relishes the anomalous story of his court's creation.

That was 18 years ago. Departing Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown had foisted four liberal nominees upon conservative Orange County to sit as its first state Court of Appeal. And there was not much Republican Gov.-elect George Deukmejian could do about it.

Deukmejian, then-attorney general of California and on the judicial appointments commission, was a lone vote against the four. He asked each their views on the death penalty. Politely but defiantly, all four told him it was none of his business.

Crosby, 60, the last of those four independent spirits remaining on Orange County's appellate bench, will retire in mid-May.

And with that the Santa Ana division of the Court of Appeal will lose its most liberal member. By his own assessment, Crosby was reversed by the state Supreme Court under former Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas (1987-1996), a Deukmejian appointee, more than any other appellate justice in the state.

"There's actually a perverse thrill to that," Crosby said. "Maybe I was doing something right."

The court may also be losing its most gifted writer.

Crosby is known among his colleagues as "the Quill." He routinely quotes Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and even 1960s sitcom character Dobie Gillis when it suits the occasion. Legal jargon is kept to a minimum.

When the court upheld the conviction of David Brown, who got his daughter and sister-in-law to murder his wife for him, Crosby stated: "The Bard of Avon wrote no darker tragedy than this."

Crosby on police officers who posed as florists while serving a search warrant: "Perhaps they have been watching too much television."

And only Crosby would say in a decision upholding lap dancing: "That's the rub of it."

Crosby's favorite lecture to his research staff is that appellate decisions should be so easy to read that the average Sports Illustrated fan can understand them.

Often cases bring out both his caustic wit and his fervent civil libertarianism.

In a minor drug case, police had entered a motel resident's room on the pretext of having discovered a cold 12-pack of beer on the man's front stoop.

"A sin, perhaps, in some quarters," Crosby wrote in support of the decision to overturn the conviction, "but a far cry from the FBI's Most Wanted List."

Crosby once berated a trial judge for suggesting that a homeless man in Santa Ana could have moved on somewhere else: "A person with no reasonable alternative . . . need not travel in search of streets and other public places where he can catch his 40 winks."

The homelessness issue ignited Crosby's passions. He wrote the 1994 opinion overturning Santa Ana's anti-camping ordinance, which forced scores of homeless people out of the city. Crosby calls it the most most significant decision of his career. A close second, he said, was his 1994 opinion that the Boy Scouts could not toss out a young man just because he was an atheist.

The Lucas court overturned both decisions.

Justice William W. Bedsworth, who typifies the conservative wing among Crosby's colleagues, laughingly recalled that when he was a prosecutor, "I disagreed with Court of Appeal opinions many times, and they were all written by Crosby."

But Crosby is so brilliant, Bedsworth said, that "when Tom retires, it will be like losing Willie Mays.

"Tom has the lowest righteous indignation threshold of any judge I've ever seen," Bedsworth said. "Items that are no more than speed bumps to me bring a passionate response from Tom."

For all his love of the job, Crosby muses how it almost didn't happen.

With an undergraduate degree from Stanford and a law degree from the UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall, Crosby was already practicing law when he headed to Peru with the Peace Corps in 1968. ("The greatest two years of my life because of the people," he said. "But I had a Jeep, so I had it better than others.')'

Crosby, who lives with his second wife near Tustin, has been an avid painter, traveler and golfer, when there has been time. But his primary interest is his two sons, who are in business together, he says, and "just marvelous."

A former prosecutor himself, Crosby had been on the Superior Court bench just two years when fate propelled him onto the Court of Appeal. He had once been Assemblyman Richard Robinson's lawyer, and Robinson had great influence with Jerry Brown. If Brown hadn't acted so quickly before Deukmejian took over, Crosby said, "we would have had quite a different appellate court, wouldn't you say?"

The Santa Ana court has grown over the years to six justices, and this year two more will be added to meet the heavy caseload. Crosby points to his newest colleagues--Eileen C. Moore and Kathleen E. O'Leary--as offering strong evidence that civil liberties will be protected without him.

The three other original court members all moved on to more lucrative careers--John K. Trotter and Edward J. Wallin as private mediators, and Sheila P. Sonenshine in business.

Crosby says big money doesn't motivate him. He would like to teach and yearns to extend his writing. He is working on a book about a notorious criminal, but won't say more for now.

Reflecting on those early days, Crosby is proud that he and his colleagues all stood up to Deukmejian. His only regret, he said, is that they were so delicate about it: "I took the high road. I wish now I'd told him what I really thought of him."

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